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Ashton Millender (left) and Teniya Page (right) with Illinois Defenders coach Kieran Byrne. | Tony Baranek~Sun-Times Media
Teniya Page was limping, the equipment bag seemingly weighing her down from the left side as she entered the Marian Catholic gym Wednesday for an evening practice.
She, several other Spartans teammates and a handful of girls from other schools who are members of the Illinois Defenders girls basketball club team, were going through some drills.
Defenders coach Kieran Byrne had a brisk pace going. The team was in its final run-through in preparation for Friday’s trip to Kentucky and a weekend “Run For The Roses” tournament.
Page didn’t look particularly inspired, but broke into a smile when asked if she was hurt.
“No, I’m just tired,” she said. “I had a workout earlier (in the day) and I’m a little sore.”
Page — all of the Spartans, really — have been sore a lot this summer. The equipment bag was nothing compared with the weight of being the defending Class 4A state champion.
“We know we have to work harder in order to repeat,” teammate Ashton Millender said. “We know that everybody will be coming after us.”
The Spartans made school history in 2012-13, going 33-1 and winning the state title. They had magic moments, such as winning the sectional championship over Marist with a buzzer-beating 25-foot bank-in by Millender, and Kauai Bradley making a last-second shot to beat Rolling Meadows in the game that crowned them as Illinois’ best.
They were a team that was supposed to be a state challenger — and lived up to the billing.
“It was a fun experience winning state,” Millender said. “It was also a relief when it was over because there was a lot of pressure on us. It was sad knowing we weren’t going to be playing with some of our teammates anymore.”
Megan Walsh, Brianna Narcissi, Melanie Ransom and Aliyah Issac were among the key players who graduated. The bulk of the scoring, however, is back in Millender (15.2 ppg), Page (12.2 ppg) and Bradley (6.7 ppg). Bradley also was the leading rebounder for the Spartans last season, while Page was the main floor general.
Complacency in being a champion won’t be a problem, according to Page.
“Everything is literally the same,” Page said. “I don’t feel any different, and I’m glad I don’t feel any different. It probably won’t hit me until I’m 40 or something.
“It is what it is. I’m just focused on repeating. I’d like a three-peat, with three straight years for me and two straight years for Ashton.”
The actual Marian team, coached by former Spartans Jasmine Matthews and Jamie Johnson, took part in the Shepard summer league and also a team camp at DePaul.
The travel team, which also includes players from Lincoln-Way East, Mother McAuley and De La Salle, is beginning a busy stretch which starts in Kentucky, then segues to club tournaments in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Annie Byrne has been fairly laid-back in her summer approach.
“The only day I coached them was at the St. Francis team camp,” she said. “We had camp the second week of June at Marian for the grammar school camp, then my husband and I went to Europe the last two weeks of June to see family.
“I think it’s really good for the kids to have to do things on their own. The kids can’t be afraid to coach each other on the floor. It kind of, I think, just makes them think of things from a different perspective as opposed to you telling them what to do all the time.”
That other different perspective, as a champion?
“Honestly, the biggest (benefit of winning) is I just think they believe more,” Byrne said. “They believe in themselves, know that this is where hard work gets you. Hopefully, it translates into real life, things that are much bigger than basketball.
“I think it just makes them enjoy it more, just that we did it — they did it.”