Girls basketball: Scouting the North Suburban Conference
Coach: Chris Bennett (18th season)
Last season's record: 20-12, 9-5 NSC
Top returning players: Baylie Parks, sr. (G, 6-0), Brooke Wahlund, sr. (F, 6-0), Anna Gilbertson, Jr (F, 6-0), Avery Cooper, soph. (G, 6-2), Molly Friesen, soph (G, 6-0)
Top new players: Leah Gilbertson, fresh. (G, 6-0), Layne Nordstrom, fresh. (PG, 5-6), Alex Nowak-Tice, fresh. (F, 6-2)
Worth noting: Four starters return (only 4-year starting point guard Alayna Soukup graduated) and five of the Bears' top 8 players are back from a team that reached the sectional final, losing to eventual 4A state-champion Stevenson. Parks (11 ppg, headed to Division II McKendree University on a full ride) and Gilbertson (7.2 rebounds) are in their fourth years on the varsity, while Cooper (6 ppg, 5 rpg) has an offer from Division I Bradley in-hand. Friesen was on the varsity as a freshman. Bennett likes the fact Zurich has 7 players who are 6-foot and taller, as well as the team's 44% shooting accuracy from the floor last season. Bennett, whose team had the fifth-hardest schedule in the state according to one online statistical service, jacked up the schedule even more this year with two more shootouts added, plus a nonconference game against Barrington thrown into the mix. Height, length and team speed, Bennett noted, will come in handy in Lake Zurich's traditional man-to-man defense. Bennett noted Parks is poised for a breakout as the team's leading scorer, and labeled Cooper a next-level athlete who has worked "tremendously hard on her game," he said. "Avery is on the brink of being a star." Cooper was a state-finalist as a freshman in the 110 high hurdles in track. Plus, Anna Gilbertson, Bennett added, can score inside and out and "is a solid defensive player and rebounder," he said. Bennett noted the three freshmen players "will have an impact," he said. In terms of the NSC, "Stevenson and Libertyville are the two big fish in the NSC ocean," Bennett said. "We look forward to playing an ultracompetitive schedule and see where we stand against the best teams in the area."
Coach: Greg Pedersen
Last season's record: 23-11, 12-2 NSC
Top returning players: Emily Fisher, sr. (G, 6-0), Kate Rule, Jr (G, 5-6), Rachel Rule, Jr (G, 5-7), Talya Tillman, Jr (F, 5-11), Madison Sears, soph. (F, 6-2), Lily Castro, sr. (G-F, 5-7)
Top new players: Maddy Kopala, Jr (F, 5-10), Alicia Villanueva Guzman, Jr (G-F, 5-9), Sophia Swanson, fresh. (G, 5-3)
Worth noting: The Wildcats are another NSC team loaded with talent. Fisher and the Rule sisters are back as returning starters, plus Castro returns after missing last season with an ACL injury. Fisher who earned a pair of all-state selections as a junior, including a first-team Associated Press honor, is headed to the University of Maryland and led the Wildcats in many statistical categories last year. Fisher and Kate Rule were Daily Herald All-Area first-team picks. Pedersen said Fisher is a huge strength to start with. "Emily can handle the ball at point guard, play a long, athletic wing, rebound well at the 4 spot and post up and defense inside against post players," he pointed out. "This year, she has added a nice 3-point shot touch." But, Pedersen cautions there is more brewing than just Fisher. "The supporting cast is stronger, literally and figuratively," he said. "Kate and Rachel Rule are energetic guards who can score and defend. They have improved so much, and they are ready to attack when teams double or triple Emily. Talya and Madison will provide size and strength on the interior. They could split duties at the 5 spot for us and we hope they make their presence felt on the defensive end first, and the offensive end next." Pedersen said Stevenson and Lake Zurich "are both excellent teams with college-level talent, and Lake Forest and Warren are rising. They could more than hold their own and will be difficult matchups for any of our NSC teams," he said. "We hope to challenge for the conference title. Keys to success will be the supporting cast leaving their imprint on every game. We play a very difficult schedule and we will face a lot of Top 25 competition. We need to learn how to defend elite players as best we can while shoring up our 3-point defense and our defensive rebounding."
Coach: Sarah Teipel (first season)
Last season's record: 7-18, 4-10 NSC
Top returning players: Rylan Foster, Jr (6-0), Diana Nanos, sr. (5-4), Gracie Werner, sr. (5-7)
Top new players: Casey Vyverman, fresh.
Worth noting: Teipel comes to Mundelein after a long stint at Dundee-Crown (this is her 10th year as a head coach). Foster and Nanos started for the Mustangs last year with Foster earning all-NSC honorable mention honors after averaging 10.4 points and 8.4 rebounds, while shooting 77 percent from the foul line and registering 4 double-doubles. Teipel said strengths for Mundelein include players who are coachable, hardworking, possess great attitudes and a belief in one another. Offensively, Teipel noted the Mustangs will "play to our players' strengths, fast-pace/tempo when it's available and several different looks in the half-court based on the game," she said. Defense, Teipel added, is what Mundelein prides itself on. "It is our identity," she said. "We will play team defense with consistent pressure." Teipel said defending state-champion Stevenson, along with Libertyville, Lake Forest and Lake Zurich are top-tier contenders in a talent-heavy NSC. "I believe everyone will bring their best and we ae focused on one play at a time, one game at a time and competing in every game at a high level," she said.
Coach: Ashley Graham
Last season's record: 36-2, 14-0 NSC champions; Class 4A state champions
Top returning players: Emory Klatt, Jr (F, 6-1), Kate Arne, sr. (F, 6-2), Kendell Williams, Jr (G, 5-10), Nisha Musunuri, soph. (G, 5-8), Bri Welter, sr. (5-6)
Top new players: Sydney Rosland, soph., (5-6), Mandy Meliker, sr. (5-7), Lekha Kothapalli, sr. (5-9), Emma Brooks, Jr (5-5), Niki Musunuri, Jr (5-4), Niva Musunuri, Jr (5-5), Laurel Jewell, Jr (5-10).
Worth noting: The defending state champions have 3 returning starters plus its sixth player back. Klatt was a Daily Herald All-Area pick and an all-state honorable mention selection. Arne is headed to Emory University, while Williams is committed to the University of Texas for soccer. Welter played meaningful minutes last season, "and has worked really hard this summer and fall and has had a nice few weeks of practice," Graham said. Rosland was brought up for the playoff run last season. "I feel if that has really helped in her growth," Graham said of Rosland. Graham said the Patriots will push the tempo, run the floor and have an attack mentality for 32 minutes. "Our system is going to change a bit this year based on personnel and our strengths, but never our expectations and standards of putting pressure on the defense with what we run," she said. "Just like our offense, our defensive system is based upon pressure in the full and half court. We will utilize our personnel with some different defensive looks, but we are going to get after it. The buy-in and intensity in how we approach the defensive side of the ball is imperative to our success." Graham said having posts Arne and Klatt back is a massive luxury. "In my career as a head coach, I have never had two posts with such unique and talented skill sets that are on the floor at the same time as those two kids," she said. Point guard Williams had Division I offers for both basketball and soccer. "Kendell is a tremendous all-around athlete and was our glue man defensively last year," Graham said. Nisha Musunuri was Stevenson's sixth man as a freshman last year and started some games. "She was an impact player each time on the court and she just had a great summer and fall," Graham said. Like others, Graham said talent abounds in the NSC. "The conference is as strong as it has been in years," she said. "Libertyville, Lake Zurich and Lake Forest return so much from their teams last year that had a lot of success. I expect conference games to be a battle night in and night out. Our keys to a successful season always reside in us focusing on the process of doing things the right way and sticking to our core values as a program on and off the court. It is a long road and season, filled with highs and lows. How we handle those will determine our success."
Coach: John Stanczykiewicz (24th season)
Last season's record: 15-12, 8-6 NSC
Top returning players: Mariah Phelps, Jr (G, 5-9), Gianna Black, sr. (Wing, 5-9), Shay Love, Jr (5-0)
Key newcomers: Nari Powers, Jr (Wing, 6-1)
Worth noting: Phelps, the team's top returning scorer, is one of three returning starters along with Black, and Love. The Blue Devils did lose Anika Gustafson (now playing at UW-La Crosse) and Grace Lynch (now playing at Johnson County Community College) to graduation. Love is a third-year player. Powers was on the team last year, but suffered a season-ending knee injury 30 seconds into the first game of the season. She was a transfer from Carmel. Stanczykiewicz said athleticism and potential are strengths. "This is a very together group that will have to play well together to be competitive and win games," he said. Junior Anika Youngman, Stanczykiewicz noted, could be a sleeper as a 3-point shooter, and Love, he added, has shown flashes of being one of the best point guards "in a county full of good point guards," he said. Phelps also falls into that potential category. "We are hoping Mariah plays to her potential and leads us offensively," Stanczykiewicz said. "She is our best player. If she plays to potential, she could be a top player in the conference and county. She has shown flashes. She is a guard with a strong offensive game. She can slash and drive, as well as shoot the 3. She can also play the point. The Blue Devils have been hard at work on the shooting end. "We will need to shoot the ball well on a consistent basis," said Stanczykiewicz, 418-260 at Warren and 433-290 in 26 years as a head coach. "After graduating Grace and Aninka, this is the shortest team I have had since being at Warren. We will need to work hard to defend the interior and to rebound the ball." In terms of the NSC: "It will be a battle between Stevenson, Libertyville and Lake Zurich with an edge to Libertyville because of its depth," Stanczykiewicz said. "As always, health, injuries and how games fall in your schedule will also play a part in who wins the conference. I believe we fit in that next tier of teams with Lake Forest and potentially Mundelein. However, anything can happen in a long, strange season. After the last two years, I am taking nothing for granted and am assuming nothing."
Coach: Drew Cuttill (second season)
Last season's record: 2-21, 1-13 NSC
Top returning players: Jaliece Russell, sr. (G), Trinity Hoover, sr. (F)
Top new players: Baakir Christian, soph. (F, 5-8), Jireh Rivera, soph. (G, 5-5), Jayla Young, soph. (5-8), Jada Dawkins (G, 5-6)
Worth noting: This is Cuttill's first full season as head coach after being promoted to interim head coach three days before the Zee-Bees' Thanksgiving tournament at Maine East last year. Russell averaged 11.7 points per game and earned all-NSC honorable-mention accolades. "Jaliece is a scoring guard who can create off the dribble, get to the rim and can knock down good looks from the 3-point arc," Cuttill said. "We're still developing our identity, but playing in the Stevenson summer league gave our girls the opportunity to play against some of the best teams and players in the state." Cuttill has eight sophomores on the squad with Christian, Rivera, Young and Dawkins poised to play key roles. In the conference, Cuttill said Libertyville, Stevenson, Lake Zurich and Lake Forest are teams to watch, ranking Libertyville and Stevenson as 1A and 1B. "We want to continue to grow in all areas of our program, from our identity, consistency, commitment and, of course, our skill development," Cuttill said. "With such a young team, I anticipate a season with peaks and valleys, but we just want to continue to play more competitively on the court and hopefully that translates to more success for our players."