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Success can be a pretty huge motivator, in both sports and life.
Huntley's girls basketball team came across some unexpected success last season when the Red Raiders went on one of those magical postseason runs coaches dream about all summer long.
After losing their last two regular-season games, the Raiders figured to have a tough opener in the postseason but they got past a good DeKalb team before beating Belvidere North for the regional title. After knocking off Machesney Park Harlem in the sectional semifinals, Huntley was destined to play Cary-Grove, a team it had lost to twice during the season, in the sectional title game. But Streamwood upset the Trojans in the sectional semis and then Huntley fought to a 45-41 win over the Sabres to win the program's first sectional championship.
But then came a date with a highly-ranked Wheaton Warrenville South team and DePaul recruit Meghan Waldron in the Dundee-Crown supersectional. Few not wearing Huntley colors gave the Red Raiders much of a chance.
But that, as they say, is why the games are played. Huntley shocked the Tigers, 47-43, and suddenly the Red Raiders were boarding the bus for the Class 4A Final Four at Redbird Arena. The run stopped there, in terms of winning on the scoreboard, as the Raiders fell to Rolling Meadows in the state semifinal and Whitney Young in the third-place game. A season that some thought could end in the regional opener ended at 26-8 and with a bus seat being taken up by the fourth place trophy from the state tournament.
And now the Red Raiders are back for more.
Of course, the paths teams will have to take to Redbird this season hasn't been released by the IHSA yet, and 15th-year Huntley coach Steve Raethz makes it very clear that another trip to Redbird isn't really being talked about around the Huntley gym but success, as we said, can be a pretty big motivator. And with four starters back from last year's team there's no reason to think the Red Raiders, if they avoid injuries and upsets, will be right in the thick of things come the middle of February.
"We definitely want to build off the success of last year," Raethz said earlier this week. "It was unbelievable and a great experience but it's a new season and every season brings new challenges We've got four starters and seven players back but we also have seven new players."
The first thing Raethz would like to see his team do is win a championship in the Fox Valley Conference, something Huntley has yet to do. Cary-Grove is the four-time defending FVC Valley champion and should have another strong team this year, and Crystal Lake South figures to be in the mix as well.
"We want to be playing good basketball at the end of the year but we also want to contend for a Fox Valley Conference championship," said Raethz, who noted Huntley has only won one conference title in girls basketball, and that was in 2003, the school's last year in the Big Northern Conference.
"it's definitely a goal of ours," Raethz said of winning the FVC Valley this season.
First things first, though. The Red Raiders opened the season with a fairly easy win over Crystal Lake Central Tuesday night then a tough 52-46 win against South Elgin on Wednesday. The future puts them against some good competition at the Dundee-Crown tournament the rest of this week and into next week, and then there are games against Bartlett, Dundee-Crown, Barrington and Cary-Grove before a trip to Chicago on Dec. 13 to play Corry Irvin's Whitney Young squad in the City/Suburban Showcase. Young is ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll, Huntley No. 9.
The night after playing Young, the Red Raiders take on Prairie Ridge and then it's off to the Montini Christmas tournament, which has one of the best fields of any Christmas tournament anywhere.
By the time Raethz and his team leave Lombard on Dec. 28, regardless of record, they should have thicker skin than Mr. Obama himself.
"We're very excited to get going but we're taking it day-by-day and game-by-game," said senior Sam Andrews, who signed last week to play at Division II Truman State in Kirksville, Mo. "We know our coaches will help us reach our potential and if we work our hardest we can have success again. We have a great team chemistry. We've all been working hard to improve our individual games and we have great overall teamwork. We're improving each day."
Sam Andrews' sophomore sister Ali has the same mentality as her older sister, the mentality Raethz is instilling in this team every day.
"Last year was last year," said Ali Andrews who, like her sister, averaged 15.7 points per game last season. "We're just taking things day-by-day and practice-by-practice. We know what we did last year; it's still in the back of our heads. But it's day-by-day. We have really good chemistry on and off the court. We're all really close and we're all hard workers."
"They get along pretty well together," Raethz says. "They realize they need to be ready game in and game out and they can't have off days to maintain consistency. The success we had last season gave us the opportunity to improve our schedule and we're excited for those challenges. That will only make us better."
Raethz likes the fact he not only has good basketball players but smart kids.
"Our kids are pretty levelheaded," he said. "They understand a lot of things have to happen for (another trip to state) to happen again. State isn't something we're necessarily talking about right now."
But you can bet it's something the Red Raiders are thinking about. And with last year's success as a motivator, they would much prefer to end the season on the floor as opposed to in the stands at Redbird Arena.