- Clay Kallam
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This might just be the year.
Illinois has always had good high school girls' basketball, but the state has never been a force in the national rankings. Until now.
The top two teams in Illinois last season both return plenty of firepower, and they also will get out of state to test themselves against some of the best teams in the country. That may not be the best news for the other teams in Illinois, but it may also mark the moment that the state starts to get some serious national respect.
Tony Smith, in his eighth year at Bolingbrook High School, has taken his team to the state championship game the past three seasons -- and he has a chilling comment for those who'd like to get there for the first time in 2009: "This will be the strongest team I've had."
In addition, the fact that the Raiders have lost the past two title games only increases the motivation for this year's group, which could contain as many as 10 Division I players, including last year's leading scorer and big-shot artist, Ariel Massengale, who's only a sophomore. The Raiders also start the season ranked No. 2 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50.
Even the newcomers to the roster are imbued with a sense of urgency. "The goal we have every year is to win state," says Morgan Tuck -- who's only a freshman. But she has followed Bolingbrook growing up, and has traveled with the Raiders in their trips downstate to the state tournament.
Tuck is just one of the outstanding players for the Raiders, though Smith feels the 6-foot-1 forward could turn out to be something special. Then again, he'll need a lot of special players to navigate one of the toughest schedules in the country.
To start with, the Raiders will be at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., the most competitive tournament in the nation, and that's only the beginning of a brutal preseason. Bolingbrook also will play Michigan power Martin Luther King, three of Indiana's best teams (Heritage Christian, Washington of South Bend and Ben Davis), and perhaps even Rufus King of Wisconsin. Though the tough schedule almost guarantees a loss somewhere along the way, it also will prepare the Raiders for Illinois' challenging postseason, and its players for the challenges of playing at the next level.
But before Bolingbrook's players start thinking about college, their first order of business is to win a state championship. The Raiders won in 2005, but finished second the past two seasons -- and last year were within three points of Whitney Young in the title game, with the ball and less than a minute on the clock. They came up short, and that has inspired the returning seniors.
"As an older player, it's very important to be a role model," says Satavia Taylor, one of those seniors, who has committed to Loyola of Chicago. "Leadership comes from the players -- they're together 24/7."
There are only two seniors on the team, and just three juniors, but the Raiders have been bolstered by the transfer of 6-4 Marissa Taylor from Michigan. She gives the team the inside presence it will need to handle the tough schedule, while Tuck, though just a freshman, is expected to be a difference-maker at the forward position. Taylor is a defensive stopper, but she knows that it takes more than talent to be successful.
"Hard work pays off," she says, "and you've got to take care of business academically."
She wants to take care of business on the court as well, and especially wants a state championship, which she saw the Raiders win when she was a freshman. "It was very exciting," she says of that experience, but she wants to add the school's second state title. "It's very important to me -- it's my last chance."
And with all the talent on board at Bolingbrook, it's a pretty good one as well.
The coaching cliché says that it's harder to stay there than it is to get there, but the Illinois state champion Whitney Young Dolphins are ready to embrace the challenge.
"They have a lot of pressure to repeat," says coach Cory Irvin, who's well aware of just how talented Bolingbrook is, "but they're working extra hard."
It doesn't hurt that four starters return to the Chicago school, ranked No. 18 in the preseason FAB 50, but the one loss was significant: point guard D'Frantz Smart, who's now at Rice. "We're missing the leadership," says Irvin. "D'Frantz was the leader for four years."
Senior guard Ashlee Anderson, though, feels her classmates are ready to fill the void. "It's our responsibility," she says. "We have to do everything right and set the example. It's our duty to stay focused ourselves, and push the younger players hard. We have to build the chemistry on the team."
Kara Smith, another senior, understands the importance of chemistry. The Dolphins (no one knows why the school came up with that mascot -- there are no dolphins frolicking in the Chicago River) were upset in the state playoffs in 2007 by New Trier, and Smith hasn't forgotten. "We look back on that season a lot for what we don't want to do," she says. "Last summer, we went to Las Vegas and built our chemistry."
"We learned a lot of things off the court that helped us on the court," says Anderson. "I knew we would battle for each other."
But even with all that team-building, Whitney Young still had its struggles. "Last year, I felt we could have gone undefeated," says Anderson, who has committed to Pittsburgh. "We had won 18 straight games, and we were content."
And not surprisingly, the Dolphins then floundered, losing three games in midseason. "That was an awakening," says Anderson, "and it pushed us hard."
And that push took Whitney Young all the way to its first state championship.
"It's the best feeling yet," says Anderson. "I was crying -- oh, my goodness. But it's not going to be our last."
"I can't really put it into words," says Irvin, now in her eighth year in charge at Whitney Young. "It was almost a relief."
In order to get the Dolphins ready for the postseason, Irvin took the team to California for a tournament last winter, but she's ramped up the schedule even more this season. The Dolphins will be at the second session of the Nike TOC in Phoenix (they can't go to the more competitive first session before Christmas because school gets out later in Chicago than in many places), and will play Indiana power Heritage Christian (with UConn recruit Kelly Faris) and Minnesota's Minneapolis South (which features sharpshooter Tayler Hill).
And of course, Whitney Young must deal with long-time Chicago stalwart Marshall, and hold off Bolingbrook, the team the Dolphins came from behind to beat in last year's state title game.
"The second half," says Anderson, "what our coach told us to do, we did. And all the time in the gym, and working on conditioning, helped too.
"Hard work does pay off."
Smith is also eager to get to work on title No. 2. "A state championship means a lot," she says. "When you get older, you can still say 'I was a state champion' -- people don't talk too much about AAU tournaments.
"We're really hungry this year."
And not only Illinois, but the rest of the nation, might wind up being the main course.
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Clay Kallam is a contributor to ESPN HoopGurlz. He is the founder of Full Court Press, an online magazine devoted to women's basketball; the author of "Girls Basketball: Building a Winning Program" and a voter for several national awards, including McDonald's and Parade All-Americans and the Wooden Award.