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Vernon Hills' Meri Bennett-Swanson (center) celebrates a layup at the end of the first period against Notre Dame during their Class 3A championship match at Redbird Arena Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Normal. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
When Vernon Hills girls basketball coach Paul Brettner made his final substitution Saturday at Redbird Arena to enable his players to be recognized by the crowd, Meri Bennett-Swanson moved toward the fans behind the team’s bench with her fist pumping and head held high.
Even in an eventual 62-45 loss to Quincy’s Notre Dame in the Class 3A state championship game, the 6-2 senior center was going out with a smile on her face.
“I’m proud of what we did,” said Bennett-Swanson, who has committed to play for DePaul next year. “We were one until the end. No one was hanging their heads.”
There was no reason to do that, especially for a school not yet at a driver’s-license age.
Vernon Hills — which opened in 2000 — finished second in Class 3A for the second season in a row. A year ago, the Cougars won their first-ever regional title and advanced all the way to the state final before losing to Montini, which was on its way to a third consecutive state championship.
Saturday, Vernon Hills was bettered by Notre Dame, a program that has been around since the 1975-76 season and now owns five state titles
“If you told me when I got to high school that I would be leaving Vernon Hills with two second-place medals, I would have told you (that) you were crazy,” said Bennett-Swanson, who helped the Cougars to a 31-3 record this season.
Brettner, the only coach the school has known, might have agreed.
A Rolling Meadows graduate, Brettner served as an assistant at Libertyville for four seasons before taking on the challenge of building a brand-new program at a neighboring high school.
“It was an exciting time,” Brettner said of the beginning at Vernon Hills. “We wanted to build a tradition.”
With no seniors in their first season, the Cougars won 10 games. They matched that total in their sophomore campaign and reached 20 wins the following year.
Then, after winning 40 games in three seasons, Vernon Hills won 37 over the next four.
“You try your best, but it’s cyclical and depends on so many factors,” Brettner said of sustaining success. “The past two seasons have been a perfect storm. We have had talented kids who have been committed to play basketball.”
Bennett-Swanson was one of three senior starters this season for the Cougars, along with Brie Bahlmann and Alina Lehocky. All three played significant minutes in last season’s state tournament.
Brettner said he wasn’t surprised the Cougars got back to Illinois State’s campus on the last weekend of the season. Nevertheless, he said doing so was challenge.
“Last year, we were all loose,” he said. “We had nothing to lose. This year, there was a little more expected of us. All year, everybody gave us their best game. As a coach who once won six games, I know what it’s like to beat a team that you’re not supposed to beat.
“We knew we had to come ready to play every game, and the kids responded well.”
Vernon Hills should be a contender again next season. Bennett-Swanson, Lehocky and Bahlmann — the three seniors on the roster — will be difficult to replace. But juniors Sydney Smith and Lauren Webb headline the possible returning players. Both Smith, who has made a verbal commitment to Vermont, and Webb, a Division I recruit, started on last season’s team, too.
After Friday’s 48-45 overtime win against Montini in the state semifinals, Smith said she was “in shock” over her team’s recent success. Following Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame, Smith was one of several players who cried throughout the postgame trophy ceremony.
Bennett-Swanson said Smith soon will rebound and once again be ready for a playoff run.
“There’s not going to be a drop off,” Bennett-Swanson said. “(Sydney) and Lauren know they will have to step it up, and our younger players will have to develop.
“But I can see Vernon Hills back in Redbird Arena next year.”