The Rockets will not be flying under the radar this time around.
A year ago, Burlington Central's girls basketball team combined a savvy senior point guard, a seasoned sophomore and a group of freshmen and turned it into a Class 3A Elite Eight qualifier.
And what that created is a big target on the backs of their blue and white jerseys -- all season, really, but more so beginning Monday night when the IHSA state tournament series begins around the state.
The Rockets (22-4) are the top seed in the Aurora Central Catholic regional and will open their postseason quest on Tuesday against the winner of the Monday game between No. 4 ACC (11-13) and No. 5 Hampshire (11-14). No. 3 Rosary (10-15) meets No. 6 IMSA (5-15) in the other game on Monday with the winner facing No. 2 St. Edward (18-8) on Tuesday. The championship game is set for Thursday with the winner advancing to the Belvidere sectional to play the winner of the Plano regional, where Sycamore is the No. 1 seed.
Central's losses this season have all come to Class 4A schools as coach Mark Smith beefed up the schedule by adding the Dundee-Crown Christmas tournament, where BC lost to Mother McAuley and Maine South, and the McDonald's Shootout, where the Rockets fell to Mid-Suburban League champion Fremd. BC's other loss was a 47-45 setback at South Elgin. BC has been ranked in the Daily Herald Top 20 all season and has received votes in the AP state rankings all year as well.
Central won the Big Northern East in undefeated fashion for the second straight year and is on a seven-game winning streak.
"Last year no one really knew what to expect and now the expectations are high," said Smith Friday night while scouting the St. Edward-ACC game in Elgin. "The kids have stepped up their game and improved. Everyone has established their roles."
The Rockets have been led all season by the increased scoring power of 5-foot-10 sophomore Samantha Pryor, who is averaging 13.8 points as well as 5.6 rebounds per game. She has also hit 42 of 104 3-point attempts. Sophomore Shelby Holt (8.3 ppg, 35 3-pointers, 82 percent free throws), junior Alison Colby (8.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), sophomore Kayla Ross (7.3 ppg) and sophomore Becca Gerke (6 ppg) give BC a balanced scoring attack while junior Aly DeTamble (4.4 ppg) and sophomore Sam Cruz (2.8 ppg) can't be overlooked.
"Our mindset is to just take it one game at a time," Smith said. "I know that's cliché but we just want to go 1-0 and focus on the task at hand. If you get to the regional championship you know it's going to be two good teams."
The first task at hand for the Rockets will be either the host school, a young team that has steadily improved over the course of the season, or a Hampshire team that Central beat 47-36 on Dec. 7 at Hampshire.
The Whip-Purs have had a roller coaster season under first-year coach Mike Featherly that has included two four-game winning streaks, a four-game losing streak and a five-game losing streak. The Whips had won four straight before losing to Cary-Grove in a Fox Valley Conference crossover on Friday.
Hampshire is led by 6-2 sophomore Emma Benoit (12 ppg., 8.2 rpg) and senior Sara Finn (9.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
A team that has flown under the radar somewhat this season is St. Edward, which comes into the postseason having won five straight and seven of eight, the only loss a 52-41 setback at state-ranked Bishop McNamara. The Green Wave finished 7-2 in the tough Suburban Christian Blue, their only losses coming to state power Montini.
"Team play," said Wave coach Michelle Dawson of St. Edward's success this season. "Everyone is contributing."
St. Edward, which has played in Class 2A the last several years and last won a regional in 2011, has been led in scoring by 6-3 junior CeCe Rapp (12.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg), who has been on a roll since returning from missing a number of games due to injuries sustained in a car accident. Senior guard Katie Swanson (11.8 ppg) and freshman guard Madelyn Spagnola (9.9) ppg give St. Edward a formidable scoring balance.
"We have to be ready defensively and we have to play to our strengths," Dawson said. "This group understands the difference in the game when it gets to the postseason and even though this group hasn't made it that far in the past they're anxious to get there and they're going to do everything they can to get to the championship game."