Mark Smith and his Burlington Central girls basketball players had something in common at the start of the season – no clue how the big picture of the Rockets’ season would shape up.
The underclassmen-loaded Rockets roster had little idea what it might take to win a conference title, let alone a regional or sectional.
And Smith, despite an extensive coaching background that included a stint as St. Charles North’s boys coach, was new to the Central girls program, along with the 3A competition in the Rockets’ regional and sectional.
Wide-eyed as they might have been, here are Smith and the Rockets, preparing for Monday’s IHSA Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional against Vernon Hills after Central whipped Sterling in Thursday’s Genoa-Kingston Sectional final.
“I’m kind of like what the freshmen are I guess, the only difference is I’ve been around long enough, I know how hard it is to win a sectional,” Smith said Friday. “I think some of the younger kids are like ‘Let’s do this every year,’ which is kind of a nice idea, but it’s really hard to do. We keep telling them they have to be really proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
The Rockets have two freshmen (Kayla Ross and Shelby Holt) and a sophomore (Alison Colby) in their starting five, joined by seniors Camille Dela Cruz and Erica Haynes. All but three of the Rockets’ players are freshmen or sophomores.
Throughout the season, the Rockets (27-4) have obscured their varsity inexperience with excellent, consistent play, but Central seems to have hit another gear lately, as evidenced by Thursday’s 23-point trouncing of Sterling.
“Probably the two biggest things are just how unselfish we’ve been lately and how patient we’ve been offensively with waiting for a great shot,” Smith said. “I think those two things have finally clicked.”
In Vernon Hills, Central is up against the defending Class 3A state runners-up. Vernon Hills is anchored by 6-foot-2 center Meri Bennett-Swanson, who recently was profiled by the Chicago Tribune for her joint basketball and oboe prowess. Bennett-Swanson has committed to play college basketball at DePaul, where Smith’s daughter, former St. Charles North standout Kelsey Smith, plays.
“Every time I say to Kelsey we’re playing Vernon Hills, she says ‘Oh, yeah, against that girl who plays the oboe,’ so yeah, she knows her,” Smith said.
Despite the extensive postseason experience Vernon Hills brings and the Cougars’ snazzy 29-2 record, Smith said he doesn’t plan to play the underdog card too heavily leading up to Monday night. He’ll save that just in case the Rockets advance to Redbird Arena next weekend for the state semifinals.
“We’re going to tell the girls they’re pretty good and stuff like that but I don’t view us as an underdog,” Smith said. “If we’re lucky enough to make the next step, if we play (three-time defending champion) Montini, we’d be an underdog there, for sure.”
Volleyball commitments: A pair of area volleyball players have decided their college futures.
St. Francis senior setter McKenna Kelsay, who helped lead the Spartans to the Class 3A state title, has committed to Illinois, St. Francis announced Friday. Kelsay’s older sister, Kristen, also plays volleyball in the Big Ten at Michigan State.
Kelsay, who dished 921 assists and 413 service points as a senior, was the Suburban Christian Conference’s Girls Volleyball Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, St. Charles East senior Caitlyn Ballard has decided to continue her volleyball career at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Ballard had options to play at larger schools but intends to follow in her family’s aeronautical tradition. Her father, Michael, and older brother, Joshua, are both air traffic controllers working at Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora.
Not so fast: Despite a report earlier this week from a Rochelle radio station that Rochelle will shift to the Northern Illinois Big 12’s West Division once Dixon and Streator leave the conference, that maneuver is a possibility, not a certainty, Rochelle athletic director Kevin Crandall said.
Crandall said more discussions within the conference needs to take place before a course of action is solidified. If no other schools are added and Rochelle moves from the NI Big 12’s East to the West, the conference would have two, five-team divisions, effective the 2014-15 school year.
“The tentative discussion was that the best alternative would be two five team divisions for now, but ... nothing had been decided,” Crandall wrote in an email.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.