2017-'18 Season Coverage
updated: 1/4/2017 9:16 PM

Nothing common about Wheaton North's championship

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  • Montini's Claudia Kunzer, left, and Benet's Tsimba Malonga hope to lead their teams downstate again this season. They met in the Montini Christmas Tournament championship game last week.

      Montini's Claudia Kunzer, left, and Benet's Tsimba Malonga hope to lead their teams downstate again this season. They met in the Montini Christmas Tournament championship game last week.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer


Wheaton North junior Hannah Swider said she didn't have the words to describe what the Falcons' holiday tournament championship meant to them.

Any tournament championship deserves to be celebrated, but this was the Bill Neibch Falcon Classic, played at Wheaton North. And the hosts hadn't won since 1990, nine years before the current seniors were born.

This time the Falcons didn't have to watch the first-place trophy leave the building after the final.

It didn't come easily for the Falcons. They defeated St. Charles East in one overtime in the final, Lyons Twp. in two overtimes in the semifinal and Glenbard South by 1 point in regulation in the quarterfinal.

"One of the things that we keep talking about is being uncommon," Falcons coach Dave Eaton said after the championship game. "We tell the girls that common is easy, that a lot of people can be common. We talk a lot about our defense as uncommon. We want to play with an uncommon effort."

The Falcons (11-3), ranked No. 9 in the Daily Herald Top 20, can't relax now. They host No. 8 Naperville Central (14-5) at 7:15 p.m. Thursday with first place in the DuPage Valley Conference at stake. Both teams are 5-0 in the DVC. The Redhawks placed second over the holidays at Dundee-Crown's tournament.

Beware the Broncos:

Montini (16-0) is ranked No. 1 in the Daily Herald Top 20, which is fitting because its also ranked No. 1 in Class 4A by the Associated Press.

"We've played a (heck) of a schedule and our kids have persevered through a couple of injuries to key, key players," Broncos coach Jason Nichols said. "I just thought we did a really, really good job."

Senior guard Nikki Oppenheimer, a Syracuse recruit, missed the start of the season due to a knee injury. Just before Oppenheimer returned, sophomore guard Zoe Zacker was lost for the season with a knee injury. Then Oppenheimer injured an ankle during the Montini Christmas Tournament last week, which the Broncos won with a 59-43 victory against Benet in the championship game.

Nichols said they hope to get Oppenheimer back again in a week or two.

Losing another player mid-tournament was hard on the Broncos because of the nature of most tournaments this year. With the holidays falling on Sundays this year, Christmas did not break up tournament schedules. Tournaments ran four consecutive days during the week.

"That's the thing about this tournament is it's a grind," said Nichols, whose tournament boasts the strongest field among Illinois holiday tournaments. "It's unbelievably exhausting. I know as a coach I'm exhausted so I can't imagine how those kids feel because they bust their tails. It is. It's very hard, no doubt about it."

Happy Redwings:

Benet has more in common with Montini than just having played for the Montini Christmas Tournament title last week and having state-title aspirations for March.

For instance, coach Joe Kilbride is very happy with his team heading into the second half of the regular season.

"I like where we're at," said Kilbride, whose team hopes to win a third consecutive state championship this spring. "I like where we're at. For the halfway point I think we're in pretty good position. We've got some young kids that are brand new to it. They're juniors, but some of them haven't played much at this level before. This is all good experience for their growth. I liked the look in their eyes at the end. Even though we were losing, they were still focused on going the right way. So I've got no complaints."

Benet is No. 2 in the Daily Herald Top 20, No. 5 in Class 4A.

Benet also hasn't been perfectly healthy so far this season.

"Especially with all the dings and flu and stuff. We've had more of that this year than either of the other two years, for sure," Kilbride said.

The Redwings, too, were looking forward to getting a little rest after the long week.

"I'm sure Montini feels the same way. They're tired," Kilbride said. "Four games in four days and this level of game. All of these kids are going home exhausted. It's a grind. Two days in a row is hard, so four is a really long haul."

Hilltoppers riding high:

Glenbard West could not have looked much better in sweeping to the Riverside-Brookfield tournament championship. The Hilltoppers (11-5) won their first four tournament games by an average of 30 points, then defeated Argo for the title by a "mere" 12 points.

For the first time this season the Hilltoppers are ranked, No. 16 in the Daily Herald Top 20.

"I thought everybody all week came in and stepped up and really showed me some things that we can build on going into conference," Hilltoppers coach Karen Persinger told our Stan Goff last week. "I know they worked really hard for this. I thought it was a great moment for us and it showed just how much we've grown this week, in handling the pressure and in handling each possession and valuing each possession, which I felt was key for us this afternoon."

The only bump in the road was an ankle injury to junior guard Cameron Kruse in the Hilltoppers' final pool-play game.

The Hilltoppers will get a good opportunity to build on their holiday success when they host No. 18 Hinsdale Central in a West Suburban Silver game Friday night.

Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz

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