Subject Line (article title)
Send to (required)E-mail
Send from (required)E-mail
A year ago, the Burlington Central girls basketball team walked into the gym at Hoffman Estates High School, and then left it a couple hours later, a little like teams used to feel like after they'd played against Candace Parker.
Dazed and confused.
The Rockets flew under the Class 3A radar most of the season as first-year coach Mark Smith, a veteran of the game, meshed a group that included five talented freshmen, an equally talented sophomore and two seniors without a lot of experience into the program's first Elite Eight qualifier.
But on that season-ending Monday night in the same Hoffman Estates gym they will invade this Monday night, the Rockets met their match in Vernon Hills, a veteran team that had been there before. The result was a 39-31 loss and a disappointing end to a record-breaking 27-5 season.
So as this season began back in November, there was no more flying under the radar. Every team on Central's schedule had the game circled, especially those they had played last year. They all wanted to be the one to knock the Rockets off.
Five months later only four teams have -- three of them Class 4A teams that weren't on the schedule last year -- and now the Rockets again stand on the threshold of becoming the school's first basketball team, boys or girls, to play in a state final tournament.
The site will be the same, although the opponent is different, when the Rockets take the floor Monday at 6 p.m. against Carmel Catholic, which slew Vernon Hills in the sectional finals.
Regardless of the outcome Monday night, what you likely won't see is a bunch of girls who are dazed and confused when Smith parks the team bus.
"We know what it's like from last year," said sophomore point guard and defensive wizard Kayla Ross. "We know what the gym is like and it's going to be a great atmosphere for us. We were so nervous last year, but coming into it this year, we're ready for it."
Junior Alison Colby has, and sees in her teammates, a different mindset this year and it starts with one thing.
"Experience," she said. "I don't think we're so nervous going in. We're a more mature team and our team chemistry is better. The games leading up to this have been learning to deal with the pressure. We're way more relaxed this year and we're ready to play."
Sophomore Sam Pryor, the team's leading scorer, remembers well what it felt like to lose last year with a trip to Redbird Arena on the line and she doesn't want to take up feeling that way Tuesday.
"I can't even describe what it felt like last year when the buzzer went off," she said. "Last year a lot of us didn't know what we were going into. This year we know the gym and we know what the atmosphere will be like. We know it will be intense and we're ready for it."
Even Smith, who despite many years in the coaching business was in his first supersectional as a head coach, admits last year's game was a new experience. And he also sees a difference in his team's approach this year.
"Last year we didn't know what to expect, but this year they have a refuse to lose attitude," he said. "The focus has been turned up a notch. It's a bigger stage but the bigger the game the better they've performed. The mindset has been very focused."
"We're much more focused," Colby said. "We're more focused on the game and not the excitement of just being in the game."
The memory of last year's loss is not something the Rockets have forgotten.
"We remember it and it's stuck in our heads," said Ross. "We know that this year we want to go there and get the win."
Meaning that "just happy to be there," is so last year.
"We understand what it's going to take," said Pryor. "We're focused. Last year we were just happy to be there. This year we want to win it."