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Class 3A Hoffman Estates supersectional
Burlington Central (27-4) vs. Vernon Hills (29-2)
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
How they got here: Burlington Central downed Hampshire 36-26 and then beat Plano 38-34 to win the Central regional, then ran past Marian Central 54-29 in the sectional semis and Sterling 49-26 in the sectional finals. Vernon Hills defeated St. Edward 63-33 and Lakes 65-34 in the Lakes regional and Grayslake Central 39-26 and Regina Dominican 42-30 in the Vernon Hills sectional.
Outlook:Vernon Hills is in the midst of its two best seasons in the high school's 13-year history. The Cougars had never won a regional championship before last season, then advanced to the Class 3A state championship game, losing to Montini to finish with a 27-6 record. With three returning starters, the Cougars picked up this season where they left off. They opened the season by winning their first 18 games, suffered back-to-back losses to Stevenson (50-43 on Jan. 8) and Trinity (64-41 on Jan. 12) and since then have won 11 straight.
The Cougars won the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division championship with a 12-0 record for the second year in a row.
The Big Three of 5-10 junior forward Sydney Smith (12.9 ppg, 6 rpg), 6-0 junior point guard/forward Lauren Webb (12.5 ppg, 5 rpg) and 6-2 senior center Meri Bennett-Swanson (10.9 ppg, 5 rpg) lead the way. All three players have started since they were freshmen. Smith committed to the University of Vermont this month, while her classmate Webb is also a Division I prospect.
Bennett-Swanson, a four-time all-conference selection, is signed with DePaul University. She is the school's all-time leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Athletic senior guard Brie Bahlmann (6.1 ppg), who was a key contributor coming off the bench last season, is also Division-I bound, as she will play soccer for Appalachian State. Petite sophomore guard Haley Lieberman has started most of the season, but Paul Brettner, the only head coach in the program's history, gave the start to senior forward Alina Lehocky in the sectional final, and she might have been the game's best player. Lehocky grabbed 15 rebounds and scored 8 points. "I'm excited for what she can do down the line," Bennett-Swanson said. "I think she's a secret weapon for us."
The challenges only get greater on the tournament trail and Burlington Central's challenge Monday is the greatest in program history since the 1984 team lost to Lemont 32-29 in a Class A supersectional.
Vernon Hills is not only the defending state runner-up in Class 3A, the Cougars have two Division I recruits, are ranked No. 7 in the state, and have had their sights set on a return to Redbird Arena ever since losing to Montini in the state title game a year ago.
"They're big and they have two DI kids," said BC coach Mark Smith. "It's kind of a mismatch of styles. I think we're quicker than they are. We'll have to pressure them and see if we can create some mismatches of our own and try to get them out of synch."
Central has thrived through the postseason on defense, allowing just under 29 points per game in the four playoff games so far, holding three of four opponents under 30 and the other to 34.
The Rockets are led by 5-7 freshman Shelby Holt (10.7 ppg. 60 3-pointers), who has the ability to set the tone early if her shot is on, as it was in sectional final when she made her first three 3-pointers, all in the first four minutes of the game. Sophomore Alison Colby (6-0, 10.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and freshmen Sam Pryor and Becca Gerke will be asked to battle inside against the taller Cougars.
Central hopes to pressure the perimiter, something it's been increasingly successful at with senior Camille Delacruz and freshman Kayla Ross leading the way.
"I like how we're playing right now," said Smith, whose team clearly played its best two games of the season in winning the sectional title. "I like the flow we have right now. They're relaxed right now and I think we'll play that way Monday night."
Delacruz, the senior leader, says the Rockets' first trip to Elite Eight status may have come as a surprise but now she and her teammates would like to spend a weekend on the court at Redbird.
"It's fantastic," said Delacruz of the Rockets' season. "I didn't expect this but now we don't want the season to end. We've come together as a team and we're playing really well."
Delacruz, who regularly gives Ross rides to school and has taken the younger Rockets under her wing, says class year makes little difference to the Rockets at this point.
"At first I thought it would be wierd," said Delacruz, who will play soccer on scholarship at Northern Iowa. "I didn't know any of them at tryouts but it all just meshed together. It wasn't all me, everything just happened. I don't even see them as freshmen and sometimes I forget they're freshmen."
Advancement: The Hoffman Estates supersectional winner will play the winner of the Hinsdale Central supersectional, either Montini or Chicago Phillips, in the state semifinals at noon on Friday, March 1 at Redbird Arena in Normal.