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NORMAL -- Haley Ream never figured on ending her Huntley girls basketball career playing in the state finals at Redbird Arena.
The Red Raiders' Andrews sisters, junior Sam and freshman Ali, may have figured on being here next year, but probably not this year.
And Raiders' head coach Steve Raethz? Well, he knows the experience could very well be a once in a lifetime thing.
"You never know if you'll get this opportunity," Raethz said after his team's 30-minute shootaround on Doug Collins Court Thursday afternoon. "It's never a given and you have to make the most of it."
The Red Raiders were sure doing that Thursday. There was a bounce in their step and a smile on their faces as they prepared for today's 6:30 p.m. Class 4A state semifinal against Rolling Meadows. The fact very few people may have penciled in Huntley as a state semifinalist means little to this bunch right now.
"We're all just trying to absorb it right now," said Haley Ream, Huntley's only senior starter. "None of us has been in this situation before and we're all so excited. Just getting down here ... I wish every team could feel this way. It's cool playing on that court. It's huge. I can't wait. It's going to be cool when the place is full."
Yes, the state finals are all those things, and Huntley's girls get to experience it from under the bright lights. But they're not just here for cool, exciting and fun, although Raethz wants them to experience all of those things.
The Red Raiders are here to win, and who is to doubt they can? Those same people that seeded them No. 3 in their regional? Those same people who said they'd lose to Cary-Grove, which didn't get there, for a third time this season in the sectional finals? Those same "experts" who wrote them off in the supersectional against Wheaton Warrenville South?
"It's kind of unbelievable we're here but once I stepped on that floor, I said 'We're here, we're gonna play, we're gonna get pumped up and we're excited for it," said junior Sam Andrews. "We just need to come together as a team and encourage each other and be focused. We're ready."
The opponent, Rolling Meadows, is ready too, and tonight's game promises to be a chess match between a Huntley team that thrives on defense and a Meadows squad that likes to push the envelope, as well as the basketball up the floor.
But as focused as Huntley is on the task at hand, Raethz is doing his best to make sure his girls enjoy the weekend.
"We have to find a happy balance," he said. "When it's time to work, they work. We had a great shootaround today, and we had fun with it. When we have down time we want them to understand they need to enjoy the moment and soak it all in.
"We had a great bus ride down here and we're so proud to be able to represent Huntley High School and the community. But we're not satisfied. We don't want it to end. We want to keep it going."
Which is the mindset of the players as well.
"I just love my team and I don't want this to end," said Ream. "We want to have fun but we're going to play our hearts out. It's my last year but for these young girls, you never know if it will happen again so you have to have fun. We can accomplish what we want to do. We're not going to settle for just being here."
Young girls? How about two freshman starters, one of them Ali Andrews, who with her sister Sam is the team's leading scorer.
"It's a real honor to be here as a freshman," Ali Andrews said. "I thought we had a good chance and we've worked really hard to get where we're at. We're pretty relaxed and we know what we have to do. We just have to bring our game."
For Raethz, life has been a whirlwind since his team beat WW South Monday night.
"The solace today was stepping on the floor and watching the kids for 30 minutes," he said. "After you win the supersectional there's a lot going on and now that we're here I can say it's been a blast and it's going to continue to be a blast. (Athletic Director) Michelle Jakubowski has been a great help and our administration has been great. You just never know if this will happen again so you have to make the most of it."
And if Thursday was any indication of things to come, the Huntley girls are going to do just that.