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Last season, the Vernon Hills varsity girls basketball team surprised just about everyone when they made an unexpected run to the IHSA Class 3A title game, where they eventually lost to now three-time defending state champion Montini.
This, despite the program never having won even as much as a regional title in the school’s 12-year history.
“Once we won the regional, actually, it was a big relief that kind of kept the team going,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner, who has led the Cougars since the school’s inception in 2000-01, said. “There was a sense that we could keep moving forward. There really wasn’t a lot of pressure. The girls were loose, and they were having a lot of fun both in games and in practice.”
Needless to say, that success has put a huge bulls-eye on the Cougars’ backs this season — not to mention a slew of expectations. Thus far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Vernon Hills entered the week unbeaten at 9-0, which includes a perfect 3-0 mark in the North Suburban Conference’s Prairie Division.
And they’ve done so in style. The Cougars have beaten their opponents by an average margin of 24.2 points per game. Seven of their nine victories have been by 23 points or more. The closest they came to losing was a 44-37 victory over Grayslake Central. Winning by that much might make some teams over-confident or complacent. Not this group.
“I think with this particular bunch, they’ll definitely be able to remain focused and motivated — at least I hope so,” Brettner said. “They have a really good chemistry and seem to all work well together. They do a great job of keeping themselves motivated.”
At the core of that chemistry and optimism is the Cougars’ “Big Three,” which consists of junior forwards Sydney Smith, Lauren Webb, and senior center Meri Bennett-Swanson, who has signed to play at DePaul. All are returning starters from last year’s team.
Smith (13.6 ppg, 5.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists) leads the team in scoring, while Webb (11.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.9 apg) and Bennett-Swanson (9.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.0 blocks) round out as formidable a trio as there is in Lake County. But as the season progresses, it may wind up being the team’s other players who determine just how far the Cougars go.
“Before every game in the locker room, we talk about how important it is to continue keeping up the expectations we have of ourselves following what we did last year,” Bennett-Swanson said. “There’s still so many things we need to work on, so it’s easy to keep motivated.
“But because we graduated two really important seniors last year (point guard Abby Springer and guard Julie Pecht), we really need people to step up. That’s going to be a huge, huge factor for us. We need to all push our limits and see just how good we can get.”
Senior guard Brie Bahlman (7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), a third-year varsity player who saw limited action last season, has risen to the challenge thus far. Guards Haley Lieberman, Mady Roberts, and senior forwards Alina LeHocky and Katie Brettman aren’t far behind. All five have seen significant minutes as Brettner continues to search for the perfect rotation.
Over the summer, Brettner also realized he had to fill the huge void left by Springer’s graduation, and her 5.9 points and 4.7 assists. So he made the decision to convert Webb from a forward into the team’s point guard. It’s been a smooth transition.
“All of those girls are doing a great job stepping up so far,” Webb said. “In games and practice, they’ve been improving every single day. When we practice, a lot of them are going up against us (Webb, Smith and Bennett-Swanson), so they’re getting used to a more fast-paced game. That’s helped them a lot I think. But they all know what it means to be a part of the varsity team, and they understand how big our expectations too. It’s going to take all of us if we want to make another run.”
Stevenson coach Tom Dineen, whose Patriots play a NSC crossover game against Vernon Hills the first week in January, offered an opponent’s point of view when asked what he felt the biggest key to the Cougars’ potential success the rest of the way would be. Dineen coached at Buffalo Grove for 29 seasons, and is in his third at Stevenson. During those 29 years, he racked up 674 career wins, 17 division titles, 25 regional titles, made eight trips to the state finals and won a Class 2A state championship.
“On paper, they (Vernon Hills) went to state last year, and they have their top players back,” Dineen said. “You’d like to think they’re gonna make a run at it again. But you can’t take anything for granted. There are so many situations that can pop up .... sickness, injury, you name it. It’s gonna take their whole team. Everyone’s gotta be ready to go and everyone’s gonna have to contribute for them. You need a lot of things to fall the right way.”