CLINTON — After starting 2-4, Clinton won 16 of its next 21 games and clinched an above-.500 season for the first time since 2000-01. Coach Josh Williams' youthful squad (seven of 12 varsity athletes are freshmen or sophomores) is the No. 1 seed for a regional it will host. The Maroons are seeking their first regional title since 1998 and enter the postseason with momentum after being the first Okaw Valley Conference school to knock off Tuscola this season. Tuesday's win was by a 56-48 score with Morgan Hickman scoring 19 and Haley Toohill 17 in a game tied at halftime, 27-27.
"You work incredibly hard for something, then you see it materialize. That was a wonderful moment for our kids," Williams said.
Though the program has been building throughout his tenure, Williams was unsure in the preseason what to expect.
"This year I was optimistic because of our talent, but cautious, because of all the youth on our team," he said. "I wasn't sure if it was going to click for them this season, or at some point next year. It has been an ongoing learning process with the four freshmen, but now our kids are really starting to understand our concepts. We are learning to play team defense, learning to play together offensively, and it's all happening at the right time of the year."
Hot shots abound
Last year, just two area girls finished the season with free throw accuracies above 75 percent. This season, athletes hitting 75 percent of their attempts don't even find themselves among the area's top 10.
Ridgeview's Megan Jones, Urbana Uni High's Jamie Blue and LeRoy's Molly Marcum are all above the 80 percent success rate, Marcum for the second year in a row. Close behind, at 79.7 percent accuracy, are Monticello's Tori Gadbury and Iroquois West's Morgan Small, followed by Mahomet-Seymour's Kristen Belyea (79.0 per cent).
The percentages for all six are statistically significant as each of them have attempted at least 79 free throws for the season. Jones' season was ended by a torn ACL.
Moving on up
FAIRBURY — Prairie Central senior guard Lindsey Krippel is shooting up the list of the area's top single-season three-point marksmen. The 5-foot-6 Krippel has hit an area-best 80 treys. The all-time area mark of 103 was set in 2003-04 by Monticello's Courtney Hehn. She broke a mark (98) established by current Shiloh assistant coach Missy Barrett Tingley in 1996-97.
With the postseason yet to start, 23 area teams have already won more games than they did the entire season a year ago.
Leading the way as most improved is coach Michelle Brooks' Georgetown-Ridge Farm Buffaloes (16-9), which have an added 12 additional wins to their final record from a year ago. Coach Ken Ingold's Fisher Bunnies (17-12) are next with 11 more wins.
Watseka (20-8) has doubled its win total. Arcola (19-6) has eight more wins. Schlarman (15-11) has six more wins as does Blue Ridge (12-16). St. Thomas More (23-5), and Clinton (18-9) are all five wins better. Mahomet-Seymour (15-11) has four wins more than it did last winter.
South Piatt (6-18) has three more wins as does Urbana Uni High (22-3), St. Joseph-Ogden (22-5), Champaign Central (19-6) and Rantoul (5-20). Armstrong-Potomac (20-8) has two more wins as does Arthur-Lovington (14-9), Oakwood (11-15) and Sullivan (13-12). Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (19-9) has also improved by two wins as it seeks its second 20-win season since 1992-93.
LeRoy (22-3) has also improved its victory total by two and has matched the 2005-06 single-season wins mark. Also improved by a single victory from last year are Paxton-Buckley-Loda (17-9), Iroquois West (16-12) and First Baptist (7-4). Heritage (17-11) has matched its win total from 2010-11.
Looking for an upset?
Somewhere next week, lower seeded teams will knock off higher seeded teams in regional games. The trick is trying to predict when and where they might occur.
Here are a few thoughts:
Class 1A at Schlarman: Look for a semifinal game between second-seeded Armstrong-Potomac and the third-seeded host Hilltoppers. A-P earned its seed by winning twice against Schlarman in the regular season. However, both games were settled by single-digit margins and the most recent loss to the Trojans was the only one for Schlarman in a late-season, six-game stretch where they clinched at least a .500 season in a year there's just one senior (Tanna Petersak). I see the home court (crowd) as pivotal in the home team moving on to the regional finals.
Class 1A at St. Anne: Ten days ago, in a regular-season game, Iroquois West posted a 14-point win over St. Anne, holding the Cardinals to four first-half points. That was second-seeded Iroquois West thumping top-seeded St. Anne. The game was played in Gilman. The Raiders will be confident in the rematch, even though it's on the road, and are in good position to reach the sectional.
Class 2A at Watseka: The 20-win Warriors were accorded the No. 3 seed behind a school (Momence) they split with in the regular season, but beat on their own home court, where the rematch will be held. Look for Watseka to play top-seeded Prairie Central in a title game against an opponent it lost to in the regular season despite hitting a season-high 10 three-pointers. Don't be surprised if Watseka wins its first regional crown in a decade and the second in more than a quarter of a century.
Injuries hit Bearcats
MILFORD — Rod Burgett is hoping to have his team at full strength when his Milford squad takes the court Monday at the St. Anne Regional.
"We're banged up worse than any team I've had," Burgett said.
Kinsey Knauth recently returned from a knee injury, which sidelined her throughout the Vermilion County Tournament. Kylie Scherf, who hurt her knee in the tournament, is in the lineup, but at less than full strength.
Last Saturday, scoring leader Ashlen Portwood twisted an ankle against Bismarck-Henning and has been sidelined for the Bearcats' first two games this week.
"We're trying to get her back for the regionals," Burgett said.
In Thursday's Senior Nigh win against Hoopeston Area, Portwood scored 23 points.
Meanwhile, Erin McNally is recovering from a head injury and Samantha Wilken suffered a bruised leg Monday.
DeLand-Weldon had 16 points and was 2 for 8 on free throws entering the fourth quarter of its quarterfinal game against Christ Lutheran in the East Central Illinois Conference tournament. The Eagles rallied for a 30-24 victory thanks to a 14-point final quarter when they hit 10 of 19 free throws, including 3 of 4 by Mikayla Jones, 4 of 6 by Libby Neathery and 3 of 7 by Savannah Ramage. ... Watseka's 72-24 win over Donovan on Tuesday gave the school its first 20-win season in girls' basketball. The previous mark of 19 was established in current coach Rebecca Swigert's first year, 2009-10. Prior to that, the school had never won more than 15 games in any season. ... Hoopeston Area demonstrated the importance of free throws in Tuesday's 28-27 win over CPCI. The Cornjerkers were 3-for-3 from the line — all by Haley Dixon — and prevailed by a point against an opponent which was 7 for 15 in the final quarter and 7 for 17 overall on free throws.
News-Gazette Top 10
TEAM (PREVIOUS) RECORD COMMENT
1. Centennial (1) 23-5 Next: Saturday, home vs. Normal West
2. Central (2) 19-6 Next: Saturday, home vs. Peoria Central
3. St. Thomas More (6) 23-5 Next: Thursday, vs. TBA in its own regional
4. Shiloh (4) 25-4 Next: Tuesday, vs. TBA in its own regional
5. Bismarck-Henning (3) 22-6 Next: Tonight at Schlarman
6. St. Joseph-Ogden (5) 22-5 Next: Tuesday, vs. Westville at St. Thomas More Regional
7. Urbana Uni High (9) 22-3 Next: Wednesday, vs. TBA at Schlarman Regional
8. Tuscola (7) 19-4 Next: Tuesday, vs. TBA at Shiloh Regional
9. LeRoy (8) 22-2 Next: Tuesday, vs. TBA at Fisher Regional
10. Watseka (NR) 20-8 Next: Saturday at CPCI