ST. CHARLES – Junior point guard Katie Claussner played one of her best games of the season the last time the St. Charles East girls basketball team visited Batavia.
Twenty-two points and a steady floor game helped secure a Feb. 1 upset of the Upstate Eight Conference River Division co-champs, an effort that left injured Saints senior Amanda Hilton repeatedly using the word “stud.”
While the praise from her mentor flatters Claussner, she’s careful not to bask. The reason: She and the Saints want to keep people talking, and this week’s Class 4A Batavia Regional presents the big opportunity.
“We have confidence now, I think, going into this regional,” Claussner said. “The last couple games that we’ve won, we’ve been able to push it.”
Saints coach Lori Drumtra fondly remembers one of the first times the 5-foot-5 Claussner provided a spark as a speedy left-handed ballhandler.
It was January 2013, and the Saints were again missing a starter and visiting St. Charles North on a Saturday afternoon.
Claussner scored seven first-half points off the bench in a 59-55 win and took over as a starter in the backcourt soon after. Her pluck was a welcome addition as the Saints challenged eventual champion Geneva for the conference title and advanced to a regional championship game on the Saints’ home floor.
After working through some inconsistencies with her shot alongside assistant James Hawkins earlier this season, Claussner has averaged 17.2 points in her past five games.
More savvy than your average gym rat, Claussner bought her own Baden girls basketball for post-practice shootarounds to keep Drumtra from sweating – and glancing at an open equipment room as she waited to go home.
“Katie Claussner is playing awesome right now,” Drumtra said. “She’s really stepped it up, and she’s scoring for us.”
The Saints needed time to find their rhythm without Hilton, a four-year varsity player and Nebraska soccer recruit who has been sidelined with a fractured kneecap since midseason.
Off the court, Claussner still has relied on Hilton’s input at practice or during halftime.
“She just gives me advice all the time,” Claussner said. “She’s always picking me up and telling me what to do. It’s always what I can do differently, what I’m doing well.”
On the court, longtime collaborator Kyra Washington, a junior wing, remains dialed in with Claussner.
Both players still recall their first encounter, the time in second grade when Claussner asked Washington if she wanted to be part of a recess football game. The pair hasn’t lost a pulse on one another’s whereabouts since.
“We were like best friends right at that moment,” Washington said.
A few years later, classmates started calling Claussner and the 6-1 Washington “Rob and Big,” a nod to the short and tall MTV reality show pals.
The Saints, 13-13 during the regular season, know they will need some sizable contributions to advance this week. Tonight’s semifinal against Willowbrook – a team that defeated East in Wheaton North holiday tournament play – awaits before a possible rubber match with regional favorite Batavia, which defeated East in the teams’ first regular season meeting.
A quick glance at Claussner shows the Saints are game.
“Katie has stepped up, for sure,” Washington said. “We’ve had some other people step up, too, which is really good. That’s what we need. I’m just hoping we can keep that up.”
Best first-round matchup: St. Charles East vs. Willowbrook at 4A Batavia Regional, 6 p.m. today. East coach Lori Drumtra is certain the Saints are a far different team than the one that lost to the Warriors by 13 in late December. Although senior guard Amanda Hilton (knee) is out, the Saints are far more seasoned in the frontcourt, with Hannah Nowling and Chloe John both embracing increased roles. "I'd say our trajectory is upward," Drumtra said. "And I've had teams where at this time of the year, you're kind of flat-lining and you know the end is near. This team is kind of exciting because I can really tell that I don't think we've played our best basketball, to be honest with you."
Best potential regional final: Kaneland vs. Sycamore at 3A Plano Regional. This would be the rubber match in what usually is a tense series between the longtime conference rivals. The Knights got the better of the latest turn, upsetting the visiting Spartans, 40-35, on Friday to keep Sycamore from earning a share of the Northern Illinois Big 12 East title. Kaneland would first need to get past the host Reapers, who oustscored the Knights, 10-6, in the fourth quarter to win a Jan. 13 non-conference game, 44-41.
Best bet to win a regional: Burlington Central at 3A Aurora Central Catholic Regional. The top-seeded Rockets (22-4) return most of their core from last season's supersectional qualifier and have only lost to Class 4A competition. BC snagged a 4A win for what it hopes is a long postseason road when it defeated Glenbard West to close the regular season. The regional final will be played at noon Saturday after Monday's inclement weather pushed the regional schedule back.
Potential dark horse: St. Charles North. Assured of their first winning season since 2009-10, the North Stars play an up-tempo, confident style under first-year coach Sean Masoncup. Should North defeat Bartlett in its 4A Glenbard East Regional semifinal, this is a group that has the pieces to challenge top seed Wheaton Warrenville South. Look no further than the North Stars' late-season chops against Batavia.