With Grace Loberg sidelined after spraining an ankle in club volleyball practice on Monday, Geneva coach Sarah Meadows asked the rest of her players to give "just a little bit more" effort and production to compensate for the freshman phenom's absence in Tuesday's game against Glenbard West.
The Vikings carried out Meadows' instructions -- and then some.
Geneva (22-5) overwhelmed the Hilltoppers in the first half, bursting ahead by 17 points in the opening quarter behind suffocating full-court defensive pressure en route to a 51-32 victory in the semifinals of the Class 4A Wheaton North girls basketball regional. The Vikings' 10th straight win earned them a familiar spot in the regional finals against the host Falcons (19-9) at 7 p.m. Thursday in Wheaton.
The burning question heading into the regional championship game is whether Loberg -- Geneva's top scorer, rebounder and shot blocker and a defensive nightmare for opponents with her 6-foot-3 frame and 7-foot wingspan -- will be able to join the team in its quest for a sixth consecutive regional title.
"We'll see how her movement goes (Wednesday and Thursday)," Meadows said of Loberg's injury, which she characterized as a low ankle sprain, generally considered less severe than a high ankle sprain but still problematic.
Loberg plays high school basketball and club volleyball concurrently.
"She's in a walking boot right now. She hasn't tried running on it yet. It's causing some discomfort. We'll have the trainers take a look at it and go from there. I can't say if she'll be able to play on Thursday at this point."
Even without Loberg's quickness and long reach to disrupt passes, Geneva's patented 1-2-1-1 full-court zone press looked as ferocious as ever to Glenbard West (3-26) in the first quarter. The Vikings harassed the young Hilltoppers, who start two sophomores and three juniors, into 11 turnovers in the opening eight minutes, most of which set up fast-break layups and free throws for Geneva. Junior guard Abby Novak (7 points), senior center Sidney Santos (5 points), senior guard Morgan Seberger (5 points) and junior forward Janie McCloughan (4 points) led a balanced first-quarter scoring attack as Geneva built a 15-4 lead, then stretched its advantage to 23-6 late in the quarter.
"Our key was focus," said Santos, who will be gunning for her fourth regional crown since joining Geneva's varsity team as a freshman in 2010-2011. "We couldn't start slow. The biggest thing for us is to start out fast and get our confidence up early. With Grace out, Coach said we all had to do a little bit more as a team to get the win."
Geneva continued expanding its lead in the second quarter, surging in front 38-9 after a 15-2 run to start the quarter sparked by Seberger's 14 first-half points. Seberger paced the Vikings with a game-high 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting along with 6 steals.
The Vikings know having Loberg back would help the team deal with Wheaton North's active 1-3-1 half-court zone trapping on Thursday and provide Geneva with another defensive weapon in trying to force the Falcons into the frenetic full-court style that the Vikes favor.
"We can use our height advantage to look over their traps for wide-open teammates against their 1-3-1, especially for diagonal passes to the weak side of the basket," Santos said. "And Grace helps our press so much with her length and aggressiveness."
The loss ended Glenbard West's season after a 14-point victory over Fenton in the regional quarterfinals on Monday. It also closed out the Hilltopper careers of senior guards Sarah Haggerty and Morgan Villafania. Though neither player started for the Hilltoppers, West coach Mike Hofland praised the senior tandem for its leadership and example on a youthful squad comprised of three sophomores and nine juniors.
"Our two seniors are both special people," Hofland told his team afterward. "Quality seniors like these two young ladies don't come through our program every day."
Haggerty dished out two assists and Villafania scored two points in the fourth quarter in their final appearance for the Hilltoppers.