As the basketball playoffs were set to begin, the Huntley girls basketball team appeared to be headed toward a quick exit.
The Red Raiders not only were riding their first losing streak of the season after dropping their final two regular-season games, but they were placed in a tough regional that featured three teams with at least 20 wins.
But four consecutive playoff wins later, Huntley is on the verge of advancing to the Class 4A state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal. With a win against Wheaton Warrenville South at 7:30 p.m. today in the Dundee-Crown Supersectional, Huntley would become the first local school to reach the state semifinals since Hampshire’s back-to-back appearances in Class A in 2003 and 2004.
“To a certain degree, I think for a team to reach its full potential you have to go through some moments of adversity through a season, and for us it kind of happened at the end,” Huntley coach Steve Raethz said. “It was the first time all season we’d lost two games in a row, and I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for us to understand that we needed to play better than how we finished up.”
The Red Raiders (25-6) have found a way to reverse the trend of poor second-half performances, which doomed them in regular season-ending losses to Cary-Grove and Grayslake Central. The too many costly turnovers and crunch-time scuffling was eliminated by a refocused Huntley team. Raethz praised Huntley’s defense during its playoff run, and the Red Raiders will need another strong defensive effort against the Tigers.
Wheaton Warrenville South features one of the top players in the state in junior guard and DePaul recruit Meghan Waldron and boasts plenty of size inside. Raethz said the Tigers are the biggest and tallest team they will have faced this season, and Huntley must win the rebounding battle while trying to contain Waldron. Huntley held an optional, two-hour practice Sunday night to squeeze in extra work ahead of tonight’s game.
“Our defense is going to have to step it up a lot,” senior guard Haley Ream said. “We’ve been focusing on defending the ball because [the Tigers] run their offense really well. That’s going to be a big task for us to contain them defensively and slowing down and not getting nervous, making it a half-court game – that’s what we need to do.”
Huntley’s postseason run could be considered a surprise with a lineup that features two freshmen. But with junior Sam Andrews and freshman Ali Andrews each averaging more than 16 points a game, junior guard Bethany Zornow's defense and Ream's leadership, the Red Raiders are proving they can't be overlooked.
“I think it does say a lot that most of us haven’t played together and we are so young,” Zornow said. “It is exciting for next year to see what we could still accomplish with all our young talent. But Haley has helped us out a lot and definitely deserves a lot of the credit.”
During the playoffs, particularly at this stage, any advantage can make a difference. For the Red Raiders, Dundee-Crown has become Huntley’s home away from home this season. They’ve played five games at D-C this season and that familiarity with the gym should help. The Red Raiders also hope playing closer to home will bring out hordes of fans after their previous two games were nearly an hour away at Rockford East.
“That’s one thing I’ve been impressed with this group during these four games is they’ve been playing loose,” Raethz said. “They’ve come into each game with an air of confidence, and they feel ready to go and prepared. … It’s been a real workmanlike attitude with our players. They have a real even-keel attitude about not getting too high or too low.”