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NORMAL — When Rachael Blanton decided to take a coaching job at Metea Valley after last season, Vernon Hills girls basketball coach Paul Brettner knew exactly who to turn to.
OK, so the Bitta name over the years has been associated with soccer success much more than basketball, but Brettner knew Bitta's history as a basketball player and coach, the two knew each other well and it was a natural fit.
And now those two good friends, who met on the soccer field, will guide the Cougars when they play Quincy Notre Dame for the Class 3A state girls basketball championship Saturday at Redbird Arena.
"When Rachael left, Andy was the first guy I went to," said Brettner after the Cougars had stunned No. 1 Montini 48-45 in overtime in a state semifinal. "He just has a wealth of experience and a lot of basketball knowledge. He has a lot of ideas and great thoughts and the way he is with kids is remarkable."
Bitta, who played basketball for Bill Slayton at Prospect in the 1970s before going on to play at Western Illinois, has made his mark as one of the most successful soccer coaches in IHSA history. In two stints as Libertyville's boys soccer coach, where he is still the head coach, Bitta's teams have gone 396-125-54 in his 28 years, winning seven regionals, six sectionals and taking second in the state tournament in 1986 and 2010. The Wildcats' girls soccer program has had even more success under Bitta, going 278-61-23 in his 18 years, winning the state title in 1991 and taking second in 1989 and 1990 and third in 1996. Scott Schinto took over the girls program in 1999.
And it's soccer that brought Brettner and Bitta together. They met when Brettner was Libertyville's JV boys soccer coach from 1996-98.
That connection has continued this season as Bitta's experience and influence have been instrumental in Vernon Hills reaching the state title game for the second straight year.
"His energy and experience are amazing," said Cougars senior Meri Bennett-Swanson. "He's not afraid to say what's on his mind. When we're doing something wrong he tells us. But when we're doing well, he's right there to tell us we're doing well. He was at Libertyville for 30 years or something like that with soccer and he's been to state a lot."
Bitta had a message for Bennett-Swanson and the Cougars when he came into the program.
"I told him I really wanted to get back to state," said Bennett-Swanson, who will play at DePaul next year. "He said, no, we're going to the state championship. That's the difference; the mentality. He played college basketball and he's just a good all-around coach. He jokes with us and he connected with us within two weeks."
Brettner doesn't rely on Bitta for one area of expertise. Instead, Bitta is an all-encompassing coach, working with posts, guards and everyone on the Cougars' team.
"I can give him anything," Brettner says.
"Whatever Paul needs," said Bitta, who is now retired. "Watching video, breaking things down ... whatever Paul needs. We have 15 fantastic young ladies on this team and Paul is one of the most organized head coaches I've ever seen. Our whole staff works together well."
And now that staff, led by these two good friends, will get another chance to bring a state championship home to Lake County.