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Burlington Central's Samantha Pryor (left) looks to get past Vernon Hills' Alina Lehocky after coming down with a rebound Monday. | Brian O'Mahoney~For Sun-Times Media
Perhaps the compliments tossed Burlington Central’s way by Vernon Hills on Monday night said it all after the Rockets’ season ended with a 39-31 supersectional loss to a veteran team with Division I players.
“A lot of people said it a little about us last year,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said, referring to Central. “They just don’t know that they’re not old enough that they’re supposed to win these type of games.”
Central’s underclass-dominated team made a statement about the future by very nearly knocking off a team that made last year’s state championship game. A rally from a 10-point deficit resulted in a tie game with 3:45 remaining in the Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional, but the Rockets couldn’t close with a trip to state on the line.
They didn’t score again after tying it 31-31 on a Camille Delacruz steal and layup. That could have said as much about their inexperience as anything.
“You had to take advantage of what they gave you and unfortunately we didn’t finish,” said sophomore Alison Colby, who tied Delacruz for team-high scoring honors with nine points.
Hitting only 3-of-23 from three-point range didn’t help either.
But the Rockets adjusted and had Vernon Hills’ Division I players marveling at their abilities for such a young team.
“They adjusted to what we were doing better than what we adjusted to what they were doing, especially on offense,” Vernon Hills point guard Lauren Webb said. “They saw we were shutting down their three-pointer and they started taking it in more.”
When 6-foot-2 DePaul-bound Meri Swanson-Bennett scored six first-quarter points, it looked like Vernon Hills might run away early, but the rout never materialized.
“We were trying to get the ball more inside,” Brettner said. “Credit them. We were trying, but they did a great job not letting us after the first buckets by Meri.”
The 27-5 Rockets, who set a school record for victories and won the school’s first sectional title in 29 years, emerged from the locker room quiet, but with a feeling of resolve as family members and friends congratulated them on a memorable run.
“Next year, here we come,” said Colby, who is one of four sophomores on the team.
Central will lose starters Delacruz and Erica Haynes, but the Rockets’ strength all year, was playing 10 or more every night and younger players gained extensive experience.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Delacruz said. “I did not expect to be here in this atmosphere. It was a great team effort. I don’t see any girl who didn’t put the effort in. Everyone left it out on the court today.”
Coach Mark Smith couldn’t go so far to offer a prediction of a return to a supersectional even though his team made it with so many freshmen and sophomores.
He’s been around basketball long enough to know a lot can happen in an offseason, if not during the season and postseason. The Rockets will take this year’s success and hope to build.
“It was a great run,” he said. “I’m really proud of the girls. They’re so fun to coach.
“We’ll be back. I’m not sure we’ll be back to this stage — we’ll hope to be back to this stage. I know when the season starts next year they’ll be motivated to play and make corrections and get farther.”
Next year, though, Central won’t get in under the radar, so to speak.
This year’s five freshmen and four sophomores will be the hunted next year rather than the hunters who surprised a lot of opponents.
“We’ll be playing in some good tournaments,” Smith said. “That’s what you want as a basketball team or a basketball player. You want to have people gunning for you so you play your best all the time.”
Delacruz had a message for her younger teammates.
“I expect great things from them,” said Delacruz, who will be playing soccer next year on a scholarship at Northern Iowa. ”Isee a state title for them soon. They’re incredible. I know they’ll do it.”