Montini’s girls basketball mystique precedes the team to its latest trip to the IHSA Class 3A state finals.
Burlington Central, its opponent in today’s 12:15 p.m. semifinal at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena in Normal, is another story.
“I don’t know anything about that town,” Broncos coach Jason Nichols said. “I might have a cousin that lives up there, that’s about it. But I haven’t seen her in about 15 years.”
As Rockets fans taste the program’s first state berth, Broncos counterparts brace for their fifth in a row and ninth overall. Make no mistake, that’s where BC wants to be – not just central Illinois, but on the radar.
“They’ve got it going on at Montini. They’ve got a swagger that we try to re-create,” Rockets coach Mark Smith said. “But we haven’t been downstate. We haven’t been near the top in the state the last 10 years.”
Central still is taking impressive steps to be in the know against a program that won three straight state titles from 2010 to 2012. A supersectional qualifier last season, the Rockets enter the weekend unbeaten against 3A foes and already look primed for the future no matter the outcome.
A junior and four sophomores – including leading scorer Sam Pryor (14.4 ppg) – make up the starting lineup. While that blend of youth and skill excited BC from the time it convened for summer camp, the program didn’t turn its attention to Montini before the scouting rounds late in the regular season.
“When we started the playoffs, we kind of were thinking about them and you’re able to look online at some of their games, things like that,” Smith said. “But our goal was to get to that supersectional game and win it, and then going from there.”
BC handled Carmel, 41-29, in Monday’s Hoffman Estates Supersectional. The celebration lasted until the next afternoon’s practice, when the Rockets suited up at a middle school as spring sports workouts were moved indoors.
Smith brought the group to Elgin Community College for Wednesday’s practice in a bid to get them acclimated to more spacious surroundings.
He’s certainly aware of the Broncos’ comfort zone at Redbird. The program boasts four returning starters from last season’s third-place team, including guards Kateri Stone (Colgate) and Kelly Karlis (Ohio) and IUPUI-bound forward Sara Ross.
“Long-armed and they create some problems in the passing lanes, for sure,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to show the girls and we’re going to have to get there and execute. You see it on tape, it’s obviously not going out there live.”
Montini is eager to erase some bitterness from last year’s tournament. Favored by many to earn their fourth straight title, the Broncos lost their semifinal to Vernon Hills – which defeated BC in supersectionals – by three points.
“You know, here’s the deal: We learned the hard way last year – and I’m not saying we overlooked Vernon Hills – but we know if you are not ready to go, if you’re not playing at your best, you can get beat. That’s been proven,” Nichols said.
“Anything can happen, and Burlington Central is one of those teams that can make something like that happen. So they’ve got our attention. We’ll be ready to go. We respect what they do.”