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Optimism abounds for Neuqua next season

02/26/2013, 7:43pm CST
By Neil Shalin

Neuqua Valley has reasons to be excited for next season. The Wildcats return four starters and a deep bench from a team that finished 27-4 and won the Upstate Eight Valley title.

Neuqua Valley's Allison Hedrick scores after driving past bolingbrook defender, Kennedy Cattenhead on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media

For Neuqua Valley, the recently completed season was a dream that coach Mike Williams was hoping would never end.

The Wildcats, who finished at 27-4 and won the Upstate Eight Valley title, went all the way to the Oswego Sectional final before falling to perennial power Bolingbrook last Thursday.

“These girls did a phenomenal job,” Williams said. “They created excitement in the school and in the community. They were a class act and they left everything on the court.”

The feature of the season that was particularly satisfying to Williams was the improvement and maturity everyone exhibited as the year wore on.

“They grew up before your eyes,” Williams said.

“I watched them take ownership, become a family. It was refreshing to watch them grow together and not be concerned with what’s in it for me. They did so much more than win games. They had fun times and built true team memories that will last a lifetime. “

And because the Wildcats were a relatively young team there’s no reason those memories won’t continue to be built next year.

The coach must replace team leader and Upstate Eight Conference Coaches Player of the Year, Allison Hedrick, along with valuable frontcourt reserve Kennedy Braasch. But the bulk of the team that made it to the sectional final will return.

Start with juniors Malia Smith, who has been the starting point guard since her freshman year, and her twin sister Najee, who became a valuable regular her sophomore season and has blossomed into one of the best players in the area.

“Malia has displayed leadership qualities and great quarterbacking skills over the years,” said Williams. “And Najee, who had other players in front of her as a freshman, just keeps getting better. She’s a tough physical player underneath and has become a major threat outside. Both girls are outstanding defenders, quick and smart. They are among the keys to our pressing defense.”

Six-foot-two sophomore post player Bryce Menendez is the athletic person in the middle who gives the Wildcats the ability to match up with most teams in the state. She’s another one who was playing like a senior by the end of the year.

“Bryce got more physical,” Williams said. “And as she gets stronger, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”

The other returning starter will be junior Niki Lazar, a hard worker who could be counted on for rebounding and scrappy play. She and guard Lauren Deveikis, who also returns, can be deadly from the perimeter.

Freshmen guards Miya Starks and Kai Moon are future stars, who got their feet wet this year and made major contributions along the way. They’re quick and crafty and the coach is eager to watch their development as they help carry on the Wildcats tradition over the next three years.

Depth was an important part of the Neuqua story this year and versatile reserves Alicia Aguilar, Maya Cobb and Jamie McInerney all contributed valuable minutes, and all three are expected to play bigger roles next season.

“The kids on the bench have an offseason to get ready and we’ll see who steps up next year,” said Williams.

“One of the great things about all our players is their character. Each of the girls never complained and awaited their turn. And when their time came they stepped up.”

Add a few contributors from the junior varsity and freshman teams who can fill in around the returnees and you’ve got a Wildcats squad ready to pick up where this team left off.

“Next year, we won’t be young anymore,” said Williams. “They developed the ability to play together and the belief in each other that will help them compete with the elite teams and have success. Next year, we’ll be talented, deep, and more confident.”

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