NORMAL -- Don't think for one minute that the Huntley girls basketball team left Redbird Arena here Saturday night hanging their collective heads.
Not a chance.
OK, so the Red Raiders lost both their games in the Class 4A state tournament, falling in Saturday's third-place game to Whitney Young 60-27.
But Red Raiders coach Steve Raethz, one of the classiest guys to roam the sidelines of any state tournament, was quick to not only credit Corry Irvin's Dolphins for the team they are, but to also put into perspective what this first trip to state meant to his team, the girls basketball program as a whole at Huntley, Huntley High School and the Huntley community in general.
"This has just been an unbelievable ride this season and we've enjoyed every moment of these last three days," said Raethz, who concluded his 14th season as Huntley's mentor. "We know it's not the result we wanted but it's such an honor to be the first Huntley team to do this and it's been such a privilege to coach these girls. They set the bar higher for this program. Doing this means everything to our program. I'm just so proud of these kids. It's been a fantastic group this year."
The Red Raiders, who finish the most successful season in program history with a 26-8 record, were never really in Saturday's game. They caught Young at the worst possible time -- after an embarrassing 24-point semifinal loss to Marian Catholic. Young came into Saturday's game angry and focused and took its frustrations out on Huntley, holding the Red Raiders to 10-of-37 shooting and applying a pressure defense that helped create 22 turnovers. The Dolphins led 16-6 after one quarter and 28-9 at halftime, making the second half somewhat academic.
"They have such great athletes on their team," Raethz said. "Our turnovers tonight were a huge issue."
What the lopsided score did do was allow Raethz to get all his players some quality time on Doug Collins Court -- the underclassmen who will now have a greater hunger to get back here, as well as the seniors, including 5-foot-8 forward Haley Sabie, who will surely always remember the 3 points she scored late in the game.
One of those seniors in particular, the only senior starter, will remember the state experience forever as well.
"I've had a great four years here," said Haley Ream, the glue that held a young Huntley team together all season. "It's been a great opportunity and I couldn't be more thankful to end my senior year like this. Third place would have been nice but just to be here has been such a great opportunity."
Raethz could hardly contain himself when talking about Ream's contributions to the program.
"What she's meant to this program is immeasurable," said Raethz of Ream, a three-sport athlete who will undoubtedly be at track practice on Monday. "She's a great player and a great person on and off the floor and she's one of the best leaders I've coached in my 14 years here. It's going to be tough to lose a player of her caliber and I'm happy for all our seniors to have been a part of this experience. It's something they'll remember the rest of their lives.
"But we have four starters back and we have some great pieces coming back."
Ah yes, four starters back. Raethz will surely look to junior starters Sam Andrews and Bethany Zornow to be the senior leaders next year, and freshmen Ali Andrews and Kayla Barreto will do nothing but get better. Junior Rachel Zobott and sophomore Jessica Brock each got quality playing time this season, so the cupboard is far from bare, and those coming back are now hungry young ladies who want to do this again with better results.
"We look at the talent out there (this weekend) and it just makes us want to be better," said Sam Andrews.
So the disappointment of losing twice here this weekend will evaporate quickly, but before it does Raethz wants to make sure his players understand what they accomplished. A No. 3 regional seed that nobody expected to be playing at Redbird this weekend is coming home with the program's first state trophy.
"You hate to walk out of here and have the season end," Raethz said. "You want to keep it going and have more days together. These two losses can't define who we are and what we're about. To do what we've done is unbelievable. There's no reason not to hold our heads high walking out of here."
No reason at all.