NORMAL — The experts have spoken.
The question is, who are the real experts? When it comes to evaluating the Class 2A girls’ basketball state tournament field, there are as many opinions as there are interested parties.
Those who vote in the weekly Associated Press state polls anointed St. Thomas More as the state’s No. 1 team in each of the last five regular season rankings.
That same group of media members selected three Sabers among the state’s top 13 players in 2A, including all-state first-teamers junior Randa Harshbarger and freshman Tori McCoy. Sophomore Lexi Wallen, the team’s top scorer, was an underrated member of the honorable mention group.
There’s another group of individuals who perhaps have a better perspective than sports writers and sportscasters who likely haven’t seen all of the state’s elite teams this season.
St. Thomas More and its state semifinal opponent for today’s 8:15 p.m. game, El Paso-Gridley, have had three common opponents this season.
The Sabers and the Titans are each unbeaten this season against Clinton, Ridgeview and Tri-Valley.
Clinton coach Josh Williams: “St. Thomas More has a high- major Division I player (the 6-foot-4 McCoy), and El Paso-Gridley doesn’t. St. Thomas More relies more on its press defense to get stops and turnovers to help fuel the offensive attack. El Paso-Gridley will be more solid in their halfcourt defense. Scoring against El Paso-Gridley in the half court is more difficult than against St. Thomas More, but St. Thomas More can become devastating with their ball pressure in its different press alignments.”
Ridgeview coach Andy Jones: “These two teams have the two best point guards in central Illinois, Randa Harshbarger and Rebekah Ehresman. They understand the game, the flow of the game and can control the game without scoring or by scoring. They have a great feel for the game and know when to penetrate and when not to. A lot of people think St. Thomas More will win by 15 (points), but I think it could be a close game. El Paso is as athletic as they are. The top three players from each team match up well. They might wash each other out. It might be the four, five and six players that have to step up and make plays.”
Tri-Valley coach Dave Holliday: “Both teams have outstanding players. They both handle pressure and press well. St. Thomas More has more options to choose from. They can go inside, outside, speed it up, slow it down. If El Paso shoots well, they can hang in there. These teams have my two favorite point guards and how they play against each other will be the key. The point guards will decide a lot.”
Clinton coach Josh Williams: “St. Thomas More is quicker, faster, more athletic and has more depth. St. Thomas More has four dynamic players in Tori McCoy, Lexi Wallen, Randa Harshbarger and Jade Brinkoetter. Harshbarger is a nightmare for most point guards. She never comes up out of her stance and pressures the basketball like no other player we’ve seen the entire year. McCoy is the best player we’ve ever seen. She finishes with both hands around the basket, and she plays with desire and intensity. She loves to offensive rebound, and it might be the strongest part of her game currently. Lexi Wallen is a terrific complement to Tori. She has great feet around the rim, finishes through contact and can make open threes. Brinkoetter isn’t as dynamic as Harshbarger, but she would get a lot more notoriety on another squad with less talent. Whenever El Paso needs a big play, Ehresman takes matters into her own hands and makes a play. Their counterpunch is forward Codee Schlipf. She has a solid post game around the basket and also loves to face up from 15 feet out and drive it. She can also make open threes. Their outside threat from three is guard Jenna Souhrada. She has a solid stroke but can get a little streaky and become hot or cold. Senior Mattie Buchanan has a wide body and a soft touch around the basket. She is terrific at holding seals in the post and finishing.”
St. Thomas More coach Chris Mennig is keeping his team’s routine normal. The Sabers are commuting daily — Thursday’s itinerary requested squad members to “bring homework” — and will be in school today, if it is in session.
He hasn’t made major changes in his offensive or defensive game plans.
“This time of year, you are what you are,” Mennig said. “You don’t reinvent the wheel in three days. We’ll stay with what we’ve been doing.”
Based on El Paso-Gridley’s super-sectional win against a Byron team that featured 6-3 Toledo-bound Sophie Reecher along with 6-1 sophomore Ellie Lehne, Mennig doesn’t expect the Sabers’ height to intimidate the Titans.
“They just went up against a Division I post and made her uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m sure their confidence level is high.”
El Paso-Gridley coach Kyle Bobbitt believes one factor tonight could be the competition each squad has faced this season. St. Thomas More’s first six games were against Class 3A schools, and the Sabers later played top-ranked Class 4A Chicago Young (and led the Dolphins in the fourth quarter).
“Each year, our schedule has gotten a little tougher,” Bobbitt said. “Over the summer, we faced a lot of 3A and 4A teams (including Centennial), and that gave us insight that we can play with those teams.
“St. Thomas More’s losses are to two very good programs at the next level (3A Centennial and 4A Young).”
Though the Titans (29-1) handled Byron’s height, Bobbitt added, “St. Thomas More’s speed is about 10 times faster. They have everything you need to be successful, slashers in Randa Harshbarger and Lexi Wallen, the big girl (McCoy) inside and kids that can hit the three in Harshbarger and Brinkoetter.”
The majority of the EP-G players started with Bobbitt when he was their eighth-grade coach.
“This is a special group,” he said. “On paper, what most people see is that they (Sabers) have a big advantage. I put our girls’ heart and fight with most anyone.
“Passion, determination and perseverance play a big role and can trump what the stats or the experts say.
“We might not be the most athletic or the fastest, but we will play hard, play together, play aggressive and play smart. We’ll come with a fight.”
Tonight’s winner returns to Illinois State’s Redbird Arena for Saturday’s 8:15 p.m. championship game. Saturday’s third-place game will start at 6:30 p.m.
On the air
St. Thomas More’s games at Class 2A state will get TV and radio treatment:
TV: Dave Bernhard and Patricia Babcock McGraw have the call on WCIX.
Radio: Scott Beatty and Brian Moline tag-team it on WDWS 1400-AM.
St. Thomas More’s top-ranked Class 2A girls’ basketball team has the opportunity this weekend to become the 12th area program to capture a state championship in a girls’ team sport. The area’s other elite squads:
YEAR SCHOOL SPORT COACH
1979 Mahomet-Seymour Track Robert Handlin
1980 Mahomet-Seymour Track Robert Handlin
A CLOSER LOOK: Was led by Sharon Farley, who swept the sprint races (100- and 200-meter dashes) and current head coach Bonnie Byers Moxley, who added an individual hurdles title in the 200-meter event to the two first-place relay medals she earned as a junior. The squad had T-shirts made up showing its affection for head coach Robert (Moose) Handlin that said, “Moose’s Runnin’ Mammas.”
1988 Chrisman Cross-country Roger Beals
1990 St. Joseph-Ogden Cross-country Jim Acklin
1991 Sullivan Basketball Scott Thomas
A CLOSER LOOK: Won all 35 of its games — one by a 116-16 score on the road — and was ranked 14th in the final USA national high school poll. Three starters — Becky Clayton, Amanda Glazebrook and Sheri Adams — subsequently returned to their alma mater as the head coach in the sport. Sheri McClain is the Redskins’ current coach. Clayton and Glazebrook were among the top seven in statewide voting for Ms. Basketball.
1995 Centennial Tennis Bill Carson
1996 Centennial Tennis Bill Carson
1997 Mahomet-Seymour Track Jim Risley
2000 St. Joseph-Ogden Track Jerry Hewerdine
2006 St. Joseph-Ogden Softball Randy Wolken
A CLOSER LOOK: Rode the pitching of Area Player of the Year Morgan Finn, who allowed one run in eight postseason games and fired back-to-back 1-0 wins in the state semifinals and finals. Sarah Thompson scored the lone run in the title game on Jessica Redden’s fourth-inning single. SJ-O (31-6) shut out 10 of its final 11 opponents for the year. The Spartans’ powerful lineup compiled a .378 team batting average for 37 games.
2010 St. Thomas More Golf Pat Hettermann