When Amanda Hilton was shelved for the season Jan. 10 with a fractured kneecap, St. Charles East's hopes for its season could have easily been lost along with her.
The Saints clearly missed their All-Area team member and four-year varsity point guard after her devastating injury, dropping four of their next six games.
But to St. Charles East's credit the team worked diligently to adjust to a new reality without its standout senior floor leader. The Saints pulled together to upset Upstate Eight Conference River Division leader Batavia Feb. 1, defeated Elgin by 25 points Feb. 8 and extended their winning streak to three games by beating Waubonsie Valley 56-34 Thursday in St. Charles in the UEC fifth-place crossover.
St. Charles East's victory evened its season record at 13-13 and provided additional momentum and extra bounce in the players' step heading into a first-round matchup with Willowbrook Tuesday in the Class 4A Batavia regional.
"We feel we're on the right trajectory, going up," East coach Lori Drumtra said. "We're definitely improving. We're peaking and playing better as a team. I've seen a surge of confidence in us. Beating Batavia was a big win for us. It took us awhile to adjust to Amanda's injury. She's been our point guard on the varsity since her freshman year. But we've adjusted well in our last few games."
Katie Claussner is a crucial reason why. The junior, who slid over from shooting guard to point guard in Hilton's absence, spurred the Saints to a quick 13-3 first-quarter lead Thursday with eight points in the opening eight minutes. All but one of Claussner's baskets were generated off steals that she converted into fast-break layups, as the hosts forced the Warriors into 10 turnovers in the first 10 minutes of action.
The Saints led by double digits the rest of the way. Claussner finished with a game-high 18 points after pouring in 22 in the victory at Batavia.
"Katie had a phenomenal game," Saints senior co-captain Hannah Nowling said. "She got the pace up to our liking with her steals and fast breaks. She's handled taking over for Amanda very well. Amanda has been a great mentor to Katie and giving her advice. She's been a huge source of support for Katie and all of us."
St. Charles East's win came over a severely depleted Waubonsie Valley (6-19) squad. The Warriors played without four starters, and a fifth starter, Rachael Pedersen, injured her ankle in the first quarter on Thursday and did not return.
But the Warriors impressed coach Dave Owles with their resolve after falling behind 20-3 on a 3-pointer by East guard Kyra Washington with 5:00 left in the second quarter.
Employing a practically brand-new rotation, Waubonsie slowly battled back, scoring eight of the last 10 points of the first half to trim its deficit to 22-11. The Warriors inched as close as 36-26 on a pair of free throws from Kendall O'Sullivan with 6:30 remaining in the game before the Saints pulled away.
Senior Andrea Colin sparked Waubonsie's comeback with 11 points with plenty of help from freshman Janiece Thomas, who tallied 9 points and grabbed 10 rebounds despite being moved from guard to power forward due to her team's injuries.
"I'm proud of the way the girls stepped up and responded well to a tough situation," Owles said.
East was able to stave off Waubonsie's rally in the fourth quarter thanks largely to Nowling. The high-energy forward supplied 15 points and 14 rebounds, with eight of her points coming in the Saints' closing run that sealed the victory.
"She really came alive at the end there," Drumtra said. "Hannah gets so many offensive boards and runs the floor so hard. She energized us in the fourth quarter."
The Saints now turn their focus to a familiar first-round foe. Willowbrook defeated St. Charles East 67-54 in the consolation finals of the Wheaton North Falcon Classic Dec. 29. The winner likely faces top-seeded Batavia in the regional finals.
"I think the key for us is playing consistently for four quarters," Drumtra said. "If we can get the ball out in the open court and get in transition for some early buckets we're much better off. We play our best in transition."
Waubonsie Valley tips off its postseason against Plainfield North in the play-in game of the Plainfield North regional at 7 p.m. Monday.