NORMAL — In a season of milestones for the St. Thomas More girls’ basketball team, sophomore Lexi Wallen was at her best when the opposition was the best.
She reached the 500-point mark for the second consecutive season once the Sabers reached state. It wasn’t a total she achieved by flourishing against the weaker schools.
Wallen scored 22 points against top-ranked Class 4A Chicago Young. She had 18 against a Centennial team that was ranked third in the final Class 3A poll. She had double-doubles (with at least 20 points) against state-ranked 3A teams Springfield Southeast and Bishop McNamara. Wallen scored 19 in the 2A super-sectionals and 20 in her state tournament debut.
Halfway through her varsity career, she has 1,028 points, including eight in Saturday night’s 42-29 Class 2A championship-game loss to Nashville at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena.
“Both her and Tori (McCoy), when the lights are on, they are excited, and that is a very special trait for an athlete,” STM coach Chris Mennig said.
Wallen and McCoy become more of the go-to players when the stakes are the highest.
“The kids look to them a little bit more in those situations, and those are games they’ll get more playing time,” Mennig said.
The key for the Sabers was having a starting lineup where no player could be overlooked. Each of the five starters led or shared the team lead in scoring at least once, and four also had at least one game as the top rebounder. Wallen was the top scorer 15 times.
McCoy was the top scorer in 13 games and Randa Harshbarger in 12 games. McCoy was the top rebounder in 25 games, followed by Wallen in six.
Prior to the semifinals, Mennig’s pregame speech took nearly 20 minutes — thanks in part to a statement former UI coach Theresa Grentz sent for him to read. Before the title game, Mennig nearly cut his talk in half.
“Shorter and to the point,” he said. “More business as usual.”
Among the points that Grentz emphasized was to seize the moment.
“When you wake up in the morning, have no regrets,” Grentz wrote. “Regrets last a lifetime. You can control these next two hours. Make dreams come true.”
No easy path
St. Thomas More played Class 3A teams in seven of its first nine games. Mennig is not concerned about his team’s record, which was 8-1 after those nine games, but its ability to be prepared for the rigors of postseason tournament play.
That’s why a schedule that this season included top-ranked Class 4A Chicago Young will be even more demanding next winter.
“Next year, we need to give them the opportunity to compete against those kinds of teams,” Mennig said.
The total schedule is not yet finalized, but there will be a game with Young in Chicago as well as against Oak Park Fenwick at a neutral site. STM also has committed to the McDonald’s Shootout at Willowbrook the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Participating in a shootout at Quincy Notre Dame also has been discussed. Not all of the possibilities will become reality.
“I only have so many spots I can fill,” Mennig said.
He also has had conversations about games with Joliet Catholic and Normal University High as well as with Breese Central, which could be available in 2015.
Now picture this
St. Thomas More players and their families will have a permanent remembrance of the final week of their historic season, which resulted in the best finish in school history in the sport. Mahomet’s Kenny Hill had his video camera at the team’s super-sectional game in Springfield, as well as at both IHSA state games.
He took footage in the locker room, during pregame warmups as well as game action and postgame celebrations. He will compile it into a keepsake DVD for the team.
Mennig’s parents, David and Sandy, live in New York but spend their winters in Florida, northwest of Orlando. They took a direct flight to Bloomington on Friday, arriving three hours before the Sabers tipped off in the state semifinals.
“I pulled them away from the sunshine,” Mennig said. “I told them there’s sunshine in Florida every winter, but there’s nothing like the first time at state.”
The Mennigs are 2-1 in games they’ve seen their son coach. The other non-summer game they saw during his seven-year tenure was an early January contest at St. Joseph-Ogden.
Mennig’s boss with Blue Star Basketball, Mike Flynn, had his flight from Philadelphia canceled Friday, but he arrived a day later to watch the championship game.
Coach on call
Mennig planned to sleep in Saturday morning after studying game film of championship-game opponent Nashville until nearly 3 a.m.
“By 7, the phone started going crazy,” Mennig said.
Even after he’d laid down, he found it tough to sleep.
“It wasn’t nerves. It was the exhilaration of the moment and thinking about the next night,” he said. “When I see college coaches whose teams make deep tournament runs, I’m going to ask them, ‘Do you guys sleep?’ ”
McCoy not only set the school record for double-doubles in a season (19) but also in offensive rebounds (131) and total rebounds (305). The latter two marks fell at state. The previous season record for rebounds (300) was held jointly by Gina Hinders and Maggie Fitzgerald, both in 2010. McCoy’s record-breaking rebound came on the offensive end with 5:06 remaining in the first half. ... Senior Jade Brinkoetter, junior Randa Harshbarger and junior Courtney Wax were the only Sabers to play in all 35 games this season. ... Savoy’s Kevin Peters was assigned to work the championship game in Class 2A as the head referee. Peters also worked the 2A title game in 2011 as well as the 1A third-place game in 2010. ... The team that St. Thomas More beat in the semifinals, El Paso-Gridley (30-2), won the third-place game against Walther Lutheran, 55-46, with juniors Codee Schlipf (18 points) and Rebekah Ehresman (16 points) combining for 34 of the points. Walther Lutheran finished the game with one assist.