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Any basketball coach worth their salt does his or her best to play the most competitive schedule possible, especially in those years when they know they have special talent.
Around the Fox Valley, most girls basketball teams -- heck, not most but all -- don't have the luxury of year-in and year-out top talent like, say, Corry Irvin does at Whitney Young.
So when that special team or group comes along, increasing the competitiveness of the regular-season schedule is paramount to getting your team ready for what you hope is a long postseason run.
Steve Raethz has done it at Huntley. And even though the Red Raiders lost by 30 points to Young in the ChiTown Showdown Friday night, Raethz believes his team will get better from the experience, just like he hopes the Red Raiders improve with four tough games at the upcoming Montini Christmas tournament.
But Huntley also gets tested within the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division, and the field at the Dundee-Crown Thanksgiving tournament, which Huntley won for a second-straight year, is far from chopped liver.
Burlington Central doesn't have that same luxury. But the Rockets sure are about to get tested.
Undefeated after Friday's easy Big Northern East win over Genoa-Kingston, BC is likely to have a 9-0 record after Monday's game with Harvard and before the Rockets take a 10-day break.
But on Thursday evening, December 26th, Burlington Central will embark on four days of competition the Rockets haven't seen all season and, to be blunt, competition they haven't seen period outside the postseason.
With no disrespect intended, it's no secret BC's schedule is weak and the Rockets' coach, Mark Smith, knew that when he took the job on Rocket Hill before last season. He also knew he was taking over a program that was welcoming an exceptionally talented freshman class to join a top returning senior and a sophomore who had shown great flashes as a freshman, among others. After a 26-5 season and a run to the Class 3A Elite Eight, Smith knew he had to what whatever he could to beef up the schedule.
There's little Smith could do about the BN-East slate, where his team has now won 14 straight dating back to last season, and Central hosts its own Thanksgiving tournament that, while providing a challenging games with Harlem and Sycamore, still doesn't measure up to what the Rockets are about to face.
Welcome to the Charger Classic at Dundee-Crown.
And welcome to the big-time.
At 7 p.m. on Dec. 26, the Rockets will take on Mother McAuley (8-2) in the opening round of the 31st Charger Classic, the beginning of what Smith hopes will be four days of improvement and rising to the challenge of playing top-notch competition.
After Dundee-Crown, the Rockets will then face tough challenges from Kaneland and South Elgin leading up to their first appearance in the McDonald's Shootout at Willowbrook, where not only do they get to play a top team in Fremd, but they get to do so in prime time, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18.
"We gave them the Dundee-Crown schedule and the McDonald's schedule after practice (Friday) and they're excited and so am I," said Smith of his team. "It makes me a little nervous going into our conference games because we don't want them looking ahead but it's a good thing for us to get this experience and hopefully it will help us in the postseason.
"If you win that first game (at D-C) you're in the big leagues and you know you're going to have three more tough games. If you lose the first one, you're still going to get great competition. It's just a great experience. We have high expectations and we just want to get better, whatever our record ends up being."
Smith went to see McAuley play Saturday in the ChiTown Showdown at Young. He's familiar enough with the Mighty Macs and their DePaul connection, and he was able to share some thoughts with Blue Demons' coach Doug Bruno on Saturday. Bruno was not only at Young to recruit, of course, but also to see Ashley (Luke) Clanton and Maureen Mulchrone, McAuley's coaches and former DePaul players. Smith's daughter, St. Charles North graduate Kelsey, is currently a senior forward for the Blue Demons.
"They're good," Mark Smith said of McAuley. "Their schedule is incredible. We don't play that level of competition. They've got some nice kids who do good things and they're well-coached."
Smith is feeling pretty good about his team's performance so far this season. The sophomore contingent that saw considerable playing time last year -- Sam Pryor, Shelby Holt, Kayla Ross and Becca Gerke -- have all improved and their classmate, Sam Cruz, is getting better with experience. So far, running the point guard spot vacated by the graduation of savvy senior Camille Dela Cruz by committee is working out, as most every Rocket has above average ball-handling skills and can run the offense on any given possession.
"The committee's pretty good," Smith said. "Sam Cruz's confidence is building and Sam Pryor is playing with a lot of confidence. A few games ago Shelby Holt (last year's leading scorer) only took 5 shots. (Friday) night she was 5-for-9 on 3-pointers. She's got the green light and she's always had the green light.
"(Bruno) always tells his shooters, first you look to shoot, second you look to drive to the basket and third you look to pass. We want Shelby shooting. (Friday night) she played very aggressive offensively and that's what we want."
Smith also complimented the progress of 3-year starter Alison Colby, now a junior who has as much versatility as any 6-footer around.
"Her confidence has really improved tenfold," Smith said of his tri-captain, who along with Ross and senior Kathleen Ratzek is charged with keeping the locker room sane and on an even keel.
"She's been aggressive going to the hoop, she wants the ball more, she's more vocal this year and she's becoming more of a leader."
While Pryor leads the team in scoring at 13 points per game, Smith points out that balance has been a key, as four other players all average at least 7 points a night. And defensively the Rockets have continued to get after it, allowing just 34 points per game on average so far this season.
"As we grow into things and the kids get more comfortable with their roles, we'll keep getting better," Smith said.
As they get an opportunity to play teams like McAuley, Fremd and others on a bigger stage the Rockets will get better, too.
And come February, Smith hopes the rewards of those games, win or lose, will be seen with another deep postseason run, maybe this time taking that next step to Redbird Arena.