Wooden Shoes stand in STM's way
CHAMPAIGN — The expectations for St. Thomas More’s girls’ basketball program in the fall of 2010 were not what outsiders might think.
They weren’t even what those involved with the team now might have imagined.
For a school that made a championship-game appearance in 2013 and is back in the Class 2A semifinals this year, the obvious goal would seem to be to win a state championship.
Coach Chris Mennig won’t turn down that hardware — if it happens Saturday night — but it was not the No 1 objective when seniors Taylor During, Randa Harshbarger and Courtney Wax entered the program as ninth-graders.
“My assistant, Braden (Heil) said, ‘I sure hope we can win this for Randa. She came here to win a state championship,’ ” Mennig related. “I said, ‘No, she came here to be a college basketball player.’ The vision of a state championship has evolved since we’ve been here.”
Last fall, Harshbarger became the first girls’ basketball player from STM to sign a full-ride scholarship offer, committing to the University of Southern Indiana.
Top-ranked St. Thomas More plays third-rated Teutopolis in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal game at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena.
Mennig likes the approach of his team.
“This group is in a different mental place,” Mennig said. “They know how bright the lights are. Last year, the goal was to get there and we didn’t say what we’d do once we got there. This year, they’ve been more focused and finite.”
Knowing that others would expect at least a return to the state championship game for this year’s team, Mennig embraced that outlook.
“The girls’ T-shirts have ‘Rise To The Occasion’ on the front and we put a bull’s-eye on the back of our shirt with the Saber head logo in the middle,” Mennig said.
Teutopolis upended second-ranked Breese Central on Monday, handing the Cougars their first loss.
They’ll try to duplicate the feat on Friday.
The Wooden Shoes will bring a familiar approach to the game.
“It’s almost like Take 2 of last year’s championship game (against Nashville),” Mennig said. “They will try to do a similar style, be a possession team. They won’t try to outrun anybody. In that regard, I’m excited to see how they respond in Act II.
“It will come down to execution and our ability to convert turnovers when we get them.”
The Sabers went through their final hard practice on Wednesday.
Mennig didn’t take it easy, looking for the same attitude he saw in the last practice prior to the super-sectional.
“Saturday’s practice was really one of the best I’ve had in eight years,” Mennig said. “It was a college-level practice. I challenged them pretty hard. At this time of year, it’s who’s getting after it in the gym and trying to get better.”
Two of STM’s three seniors are starters.
The third is During, whom Mennig refers to as “Coach During.”
“She is vocal and fun-spirited,” he said. “She is one of those blue-collar kids.”
During is content to be a part of the state’s top-ranked team and Mennig said, “if she’s sour grapes, that changes the whole dynamic, but she’s a nice, mature young lady.”
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Teutopolis is no stranger to success in girls’ basketball.
Under the late Dennis Koester, and now his former player, Laurie Thompson, T-Town has won more regional titles (32) and sectional titles (21) than any school in state history in girls’ basketball.
The team’s 11 state trophies and five championship game wins are second all time only to Chicago Marshall.
This year is the 23rd in a row for the Wooden Shoes to win at least 20 games.
And yet, very few people outside of the community expected Teutopolis to upset the previously unbeaten Cougars from Breese Central on Monday.
“The ones who believed it were the ones who mattered,” Thompson said. ”They were in our locker room. Offensively, we played aggressively and with confidence. We knocked down some shots and gained confidence.”
T-Town went up 15-5 in the first quarter and held off the Cougars.
Last year’s 25-win Teutopolis team had no seniors.
Thompson said all along this year “I thought we had the potential to be there (at state) and do something special.”
The school is guaranteed its 12th state trophy. Starting off with the state’s top-ranked team is fine, Thompson said.
“That’s why we play the game,” she said, “to play the best. They have nice players we’ll have to take care of and hold down. Tori has players with her who can play ball. It will have to be a team defensive effort.”
Riverton learned in the super-sectional how devastating the Sabers’ press can be.
STM forced eight first-quarter turnovers, six of which were steals by Harshbarger.
“We’ve played some 3A and 4A teams and have seen several presses,” Thompson said. “We haven’t had a lot of problem with one. If we run our press-breaker the way we can, we should be OK.”
Thompson said where her team has shined is on the defensive end. That, too, is carrying on a tradition.
“That’s our staple here at T-Town,” she said. “If you’re going to be a successful team, you have to have a great team defense. We take pride in our defense. We hope it can create some offense for us.”
In the sectional finals, Teutopolis held Mount Carmel — and the state’s career scoring leader, Tyra Buss — to 31 points.
Buss managed 15 of those points.
T-Town has two double-figure scorers. Madeline Hartke has a 12.6 average and Cierra Thompson, who has 59 three-pointers, has a 10.7 average.