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Burlington Central's Kayla Ross drives toward the basket while defended by St. Edward's Katelyn Castoro. | Jeff Krage/For Sun-Times Media
Although Burlington Central lists sophomore Kayla Ross as a guard, “free safety” might be a more accurate description because of how she attacks a basketball.
“We (coaches) made a lot of references to a safety in football, but I’m not sure they’ve watched a lot of football,” Rockets coach Mark Smith said. “She is our fastest kid and she does a fantastic job.”
Smith and Rockets teammates have dubbed Ross the “Energizer Bunny,” and she leads Central (26-4) into the Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional for a second straight year, this time against Carmel (23-8) at 6 p.m. Monday in a quest of the school’s first trip to the state finals for girls basketball.
While players such as Shelby Holt, Alison Colby and Samantha Pryor have led the scoring on a given night, it’s Ross taking care of the defensive end by playing back on the press for turnovers leading to easy buckets. Or she takes the tough backcourt assignment to eliminate a scoring threat.
In Thursday’s 55-41 sectional title win, she held Rockford Lutheran’s Baillie McGirk to four points after McGirk had 21 in her previous game. Ross held Sycamore sharpshooter Bailey Gilbert to eight points, five coming after the outcome was decided. In regionals, Hampshire’s Sara Finn went scoreless against Central after a 25-point game.
“We like pressing,” Ross said. “It puts more pessure on them, and if they can’t handle it we just keep going at them. Then we look up the court and try to get the easy bucket, or if they break it we bring it back and make them run their offense.”
The press has led to numerous easy buckets at the other end of the court, and while many might not notice Ross because her name isn’t always among scoring leaders, her teammates sure notice the turnovers that led to their easy points.
“We love Kayla. She’s awesome,” Pryor said. “She’s so fast. It’s so nice having her there.”
The Rockets dominated most Big Northen East games that they didn’t play as much press as they would like — at least not enough to suit Ross. So playing it a lot in the postseason has been a treat.
“I just run all over the floor, I get the steals I can and help the team out any way I can,” Ross said.
Ross’ nose for the ball translates well into another area. While Colby leads in rebounding, Ross also is always on the boards despite playing away from the hoop.
“At the beginning of the year we have a list,” Smith said. “We have the girls vote on best shooter, best this, best that. One of the categories is best rebounder. She’s right at the top. The girls vote her best rebounder. She’s quick. She knows where the ball’s coming all the time.”
The Rockets will need all the rebounding and defensive help they can get to topple a veteran Carmel team with six seniors who’ve faced many different defenses in a difficult schedule that included defending 4A champ Marian.
A rangy team that can look over presses, Carmel is led by guard Kathleen Felicelli — a three-sport star with over 1,000 points who Ross no doubt will draw as a coverage assignment. Guard Cassidy Kloss (5-10), forward Leah Lach (5-10) and junior center Emma Rappe (6-foot) are keys as well.
Ross called returning to Hoffman Estates for a supersectional a feeling of “deja vu.”
“It’s going to be a great feeling, a great atmosphere,” Ross said. “And we hope to get the ‘W.’”