URBANA – In the midst of a basketball season short on wins and long on hard-earned lessons, coach Mike Lindemann points to a Twin City rival as a fitting example for his youthful Champaign Central Maroons.
"I look at our team like what Urbana was going through three years ago," Lindemann said this week. "I tell them, 'That's what we can be if we keep working at it.' "
Like the Maroons (3-16), the Tigers needed time to grow up and grow together. Of the nine seniors on Urbana coach Aimee Smith's current roster, two have been varsity members since they were freshmen. Three others were promoted to varsity as sophomores.
"When you're in a position to pull up younger players who have talent, it obviously helps to get them some experience," Smith said. "And even if you don't do that well during those years, you hope that experience pays off down the road."
Three seasons ago, Urbana was 4-22, followed by 10-17 and 13-18 campaigns.
Now, the all-grown-up Tigers are 12-5 and leading the Big 12 Conference by two games in the loss column at 7-0.
"We've had some great experiences and some bad experiences, and we've just learned from them and grown as a team," senior Mandy Kirby said. "This year, we've finally matured and started doing the little things, and everyone's on the same page."
Kirby is in her fourth year as Urbana's starting point guard. Guard Megan Roegge also is a four-year varsity player, while fellow seniors Amy Gray, Jasmine Gay and Megan Kirby are in their third seasons on varsity.
Their collective experience is evident in many ways, including a knack for avoiding even the hint of a slump. Only once this season has Urbana lost as many as two games in a row.
"They seem to be very poised," said Lindemann, whose Maroons lost 45-41 to the visiting Tigers on Dec. 6. "They were missing one of their players (Gay), and we played one of our best games of the year. And they didn't panic. They seemed very under control, like they've been through it before, which they have."
For a turning point in the evolution of these Tigers, look to last season's stretch run. On Feb. 1, 2007, Urbana stood 8-17. Then Smith's squad didn't lose again until the IHSA sectional semifinals. The 5-1 finishing kick included victories by the 12th-seeded Tigers against second-seeded Mahomet-Seymour and eighth-seeded Normal Community, the latter in the regional final.
"It was kind of a Cinderella story," Gray said. "We weren't expected to do anything. That was a really big thing for us. It showed us that we can play quality teams and be successful."
In fact, these Tigers remain on course to accomplish something none of their predecessors has: win a Big 12 title. With six conference games remaining for Urbana, starting with tonight's visit to Centennial, there still is much work to do. At the same time, the clock is ticking quickly on the careers of a Tiger senior class eager to leave a distinctive mark.
"We're trying to do some great things here," Mandy Kirby said. "It's our last year."