Here comes the fun part of the season
Yes, they're finally here, the Class 1A and Class 2A girls tipping off this week, the Class 3A and Class 4A girls next week, and then the boys follow in kind.
Let's dive in.
1. Playing with pain:
If Montini claims its 14th consecutive girls basketball sectional championship in two weeks, it won't come easily.
It's not just that the top-seeded Broncos have to get through No. 2 Benet. And No. 3 Simeon. And No. 4 Kenwood. And No. 5 St. Ignatius. And No. 6 Whitney Young.
It's that the Broncos haven't had more than three full-out, five-on-five practices since Dec. 1 because of injuries, coach Jason Nichols said.
On Wednesday the Broncos rested Valparaiso-bound senior guard Illysse Pitts and her persistent shin splints as well as junior point guard Sam Mitchell and her sprained ankle, once feared to be broken.
That's not to mention junior guard Zoe Zacker, who played a mere 61 seconds in November before suffering her third torn ACL, ending her season. Other players have played through minor knocks, such as junior guard Frankie Kokkines and her ongoing calf issue.
The Broncos hope to get Pitts and Mitchell back next week.
"It's been one heck of a rough year with us," said Nichols, whose team placed third in the state last year. "I mean we don't practice. We do not practice. We literally walk through stuff and watch film all the time. It's going to be interesting."
Still, the Broncos are No. 1 in the Daily Herald Top 20 and haven't lost to an Illinois team this season, though they have had some close calls.
"That's why there's times we just looked so vulnerable and so beatable," Nichols said. "But we're finding ways to win a lot of games, which I guess is a character thing. It says a lot about them."
But for a perfectionist like Nichols, it's tough to watch.
"We've got a lot of things to clean up and unfortunately we can't do a lot of those things because we don't practice because we're always resting people that are injured," Nichols added. "It's been so difficult. ... It's been an unbelievable year. I've never been a part of something like it."
2. Missing from action:
Montini isn't the only team battling injuries.
Wheaton North is crossing its fingers that junior guard Nikki Baird (broken wrist) is cleared to play next week. The Falcons haven't been the same without her.
"She's 6-foot-2, she can shoot it, she just brings a different dynamic," Falcons coach Dave Eaton said. "She makes everybody better on the floor. She's a tremendous passer. She just does a lot for our team as a 6-2 guard that can really score from 3, get to the rim."
Benet senior guard Tsimba Malonga, a Denver recruit, hasn't been herself all season because of a bad knee. But Malonga scored 18 points in the Redwings' win Wednesday at Marist.
That's a sign that the Redwings could be warming up for a long playoff run after going undefeated through the East Suburban Catholic Conference entering Friday's game against Carmel.
Malonga's Benet teammates Ashley Konkle and Lauren Stack are feeling better after suffering torn ACLs in the early part of 2017. Stack seems to be 100 percent, but it might take Konkle a little longer.
Wheaton Warrenville South has been missing key sub Paige Miller because of a foot injury suffered three weeks ago but hopes she will be able to return next week also.
3. Close to home:
Once Timothy Christian's boys basketball team takes care of some regular-season business, the Trojans (19-4) have a giant goal in mind.
Get back home to Elmhurst.
Depending how the Class 2A pairings (announced Friday afternoon) work out, the Trojans are headed to either the Guerin or Northridge Prep regional. As the top seed in subsectional A, they're likely headed to play at No. 7 Guerin.
Win the regional title and Timothy Christian earns the reward of playing the sectional at home. There's no better way to break in a new facility -- Ward Athletic Center -- than hosting a sectional. Getting to play in said sectional is the icing on the cake.
Timothy Christian is unbeaten at home this season, so the possibility presents a huge advantage.
The down side? Also feeding into the Timothy Christian sectional is Orr -- not only the top-ranked team in the Associated Press 2A poll but also a regional host. In other words even at home it'd take a huge upset for the Trojans to win a sectional title.
Fourth-seeded IC Catholic Prep feeds into the same subsectional as Timothy Christian while Lisle, a regional host, and Westmont are the top two seeds in subsectional A of the Clifton Central Class 2A sectional.
4. Home sweet home:
We have another week before the Class 3A and 4A boys seeds are announced, but the guarantees are obvious.
No one wants to draw Naperville North or Hinsdale South in the Class 4A Glenbard East sectional.
That's because both schools host regionals, and both teams are unbeaten at home.
Naperville North (20-2) lost once at the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic and suffered its lone DuPage Valley Conference defeat at Wheaton Warrenville South. Hinsdale South (16-5) is 7-0 at home including last Friday's big West Suburban Gold win over Willowbrook.
You can count on Naperville North being a top-four seed at Glenbard East, meaning none of the other top seeds will be part of the Huskies' regional field. But because the sectional is eight-to-10 deep, it still sets up interesting regional potential.
Depending on where the Huskies get seeded, Naperville Central (18-7) could head to Naperville North ... or maybe Batavia or Geneva will head there. As important as the top four seeds might be, keep in mind the next four are just as important.
Imagine if Naperville North gets the top seed and Hinsdale South is seeded eighth. Or if another combination -- two and seven, three and six, etc. -- pairs the two.
The IHSA traditionally sticks to the seeds to form the brackets, but they obviously can't do that with two regional hosts. If the IHSA must diverge from the seeds, that means a Benet (18-4), WW South (21-4) or Willowbrook (19-5) would be sent to Hinsdale South instead. Same with a lower seed heading to Naperville North despite seeds not matching up.
Just something to think about before next week's announcement. It's not only who you play, it's where you play.
5. The Stat:
Look at the teams in the Class 4A Lake Park girls sectional. Think of the teams that will form the new DuKane Conference next season.
All eight are in that sectional, starting with top seed and defending state champion Geneva. Four of the top five sectional seeds will play in the DuKane next year, seven of the first 11.
Figure the IHSA finds a way to break them up a year from now.