NORMAL -- There's no time like the present to start thinking about next year.
That's how the Burlington Central girls basketball team felt Saturday after falling 64-40 to Quincy Notre Dame in the third place game of the Class 3A state tournament at Redbird Arena.
And the goal for next year has already been established.
"Our goal this year was to go downstate," said Rockets' coach Mark Smith. "Next year it's to win state. Hopefully we have that opportunity."
With their top six players returning from this 27-6 team, there's no reason for the Rockets not to shoot for the stars.
Junior starter Alison Colby and top reserve Aly DeTamble will be seasoned seniors and the "Fab Five" sophomore group of Sam Pryor, Kayla Ross, Shelby Holt, Sam Cruz and Becca Gerke will all enter the 2014-15 season with two solid varsity years and a plethora of AAU experience under their belts.
It won't get easier just because Montini will move up to Class 4A next year under the IHSA's new Success Achievement system. The scope of all those changes remains to be seen but as sure as Montini will be in 4A, Class 2A champion St. Thomas More with 6-4 sophomore Tori McCoy, now the nation's top-rated player in the Class of 2016, will move up to 3A, and every team Central plays will turn it up a notch in trying to beat the Rockets.
But despite an 0-2 showing at this weekend's state finals, the Rockets earned a level of respect from everyone who realized they had just one senior on the team (more about her in a bit).
"He's got a great thing started there," said Quincy Notre Dame coach Eric Orne. "They can build on what they started this year and if (Smith) can really get the family feeling going like we have, that program can be very successful."
There were some tears from the Rocket players after Saturday's loss but they didn't cry buckets as one might expect. They all know their high school careers are far from over and they fully intend to continue to finish their future seasons on the Redbird court, as does Smith, who has guided the Rockets to a 54-11 record the past two seasons.
"It's a cool feeling," Smith said of bringing a team to state. "I went to Elk Grove High School, and as a kid you dreamed about going to Champaign (the former home of the boys state tournament). When you lose in a sectional final or a supersectional the tears are flowing. But it's a different feeling when you're here. It makes you want to come down here again. To go home with the fourth-place trophy this year is just a great feeling."
Smith has been coaching for some 30 years. He's coached boys, junior college women and his daughter, Kelsey, was a standout for St. Charles North who played at Michigan State and DePaul. But for all his basketball experience, the last two years have been something special, something he will only trade for a trophy that says something better than fourth place.
"Two years ago when I took this job I had no idea how good they were," he said. "I feel so blessed. It's such a great group. There's a lot of togetherness. We're a family and this has been an awesome experience that we want to have again. It's really been a thrill for me and for the coaching staff, but more importantly for the kids. The joy I see in their faces gives me joy.
"How hard they play and what they've accomplished makes the whole community proud. We lost some senior leadership from last year but this team evolved into a team as strong if not stronger than last year's team."
If they get the opportunity to play in the state finals again next year, they Rockets will have the enormous advantage of having been here. The pomp and circumstance of the Thursday shootaround, the TV interviews, the practice at Illinois Wesleyan, the banquet Thursday night, the protocol that comes with the state tournament … all those things will now be known and not a shock to their focus on basketball.
Their supersectional win over Carmel proved just how valuable experience on a big stage can be. And now that they've been on the biggest stage of them all, the motivation to get back here, and the focus to make that happen, is already in place. This, Central fans believe, could be the group that finally brings an elusive team state championship trophy to a school that has two seconds, two thirds and a fourth from state in boys track, girls volleyball, softball and boys soccer.
"We came in just happy to be here," said sophomore all-stater Sam Pryor, the team's leading scorer who, along with the rest of the Rockets, just kept getting better and better as the season went on.
"I feel like next year we're going to be ready to win it."
And Rocket Nation cannot wait for that process to begin.
Thank you, Kathleen: The returning Rockets, and the Central fan section, saved their greatest admiration Saturday for reserve guard Kathleen Ratzek, who got in in the final two minutes and made 2 free throws with 40 seconds left in the game, prompting the student section to start the "Thank you Kathleen" chant. And Smith took Ratzek out of the game with 1.9 seconds to go so that she could get her just reward --- a standing ovation from the entire BC crowd and tight hugs from her teammates.
"She's always taking care of everyone and making sure everyone's happy and enjoying the experience," said junior Alison Colby of Ratzek.
If the Rockets can make it back to state it won't be hard for Ratzek to cheer them on. She will attend Illinois State University starting this fall and study speech pathology.