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Columnist
Girls season so far has featured predictable growing pains
By John Lemon | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 1/4/2011 12:37 AM

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Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2011 brings a few more jumpers dropping and victories on the local girls basketball scene.

I say that after spending most of the past three weeks at one holiday tournament after another, girls and boys. That ended for me last Thursday at Oswego East watching East Aurora sink 6 of 27 free throw attempts... which percentage-wise anyway was better than South Elgin's 2 of 10. And Kaneland followed that with 22 points in losing the third-place game to Downers Grove South.

So maybe a break was needed for everyone at that point. Four games in four days can be draining for any team, not to mention sports writers. And while it might have ended with a thud, there were several encouraging performances indicating there's better basketball to come in the new year.

Class of the pack: Rewind to last March putting together our All-Area team. When you saw only two underclassmen on the team you figured the following year could be a bit of a rebuilding season. And that has played out, with only Geneva (11-3) and Aurora Central (9-7) with winning records. The nine girls schools our office covers are a combined 50-84.

Not surprisingly, both of those 2009 All-Area players Kat Yelle and Ashley Santos are on Geneva. The only two 2009 special mention choices who are back, Sammy Scofield and Jacqueline Cardona, also play at Geneva and ACC.

Santos has really elevated her game in her junior season, winning MVP honors while the Vikings went 5-0 for their third straight Naperville North/Benet Holiday tournament title.

"That kid puts her time in. She wants the ball at the end. We are going to do what we can to make sure that happens," said Geneva assistant coach Tim Pease after Santos drained the game-winning 18-footer in the final minute to beat Benet.

That win was one of several close calls for the Vikings. Not only are the 3 losses unusual for a team that had gone 54-0 the past two regular seasons, so are close wins like Benet, Wheaton Warrenville South and Glenbard West.

Not that being in those pressure-packed situations is necessarily a bad thing.

"I think it can only help us," Pease said. "Working on possessions, time and score. Execution on offense, getting stops on defense. These are all things we do in practice but it's entirely different when you put people in the stands, get a couple referees out there and it's a ballgame.

"Absolutely we are going to look at this as something down the road that can help us get better. Playing in this tournament really helps the girls program. Outstanding ballclubs over here that are really well coached."

Pease has filled in the first half for Gina Nolan while Nolan recovers from cancer. Nolan was back for Geneva's first game of the tournament against WW South and final one against Glenbard West.

"That is absolutely in their hearts and minds every time they step on the court," Pease said."The kids love to see her. She's feeling better and is just trying to maintain that rate she is getting better. This is her team and her program and when she's ready let's go.

"It's been emotional. I don't know if a roller coaster because these girls are so mature, so resilient. They just kind of follow in coach Nolan's footsteps. She's fighting, these kids are fighting with her. That is kind of the attitude and mindset they have. It's been fun for me to be around and watch."

Geneva gets the second half of its season started Tuesday night with a huge challenge against Bartlett. The Hawks have only lost once, Thursday in the Dundee-Crown championship game 65-47 to Fenwick.

Bartlett is only one of several tough matchups the Vikings have on the schedule in January, a list that also includes a road game at Fenwick and a date with Pinkerton (Ohio) at the McDonald's Shootout.

Knights on the rise: While the 22 points, after scoring 30 the night before against West Chicago, wasn't the way Kaneland wanted to end its four days at Oswego East, the reason the Knights were playing in the night games against the best schools was their play the first two days.

Kaneland made it into the winner's bracket for the first time in five years at the tournament by beating eventual consolation champion South Elgin 59-55, then scoring 64 points to upset No. 2 seed Addison Trail.

"We're glad. We're really proud of that (fourth place), and we have been working so well as a team and practicing hard so that's good," Knights center Kelly Evers said.

"We just have to keep working as a team, stop playing selfish basketball and do the best we can that way," Evers said.

While the last two losses dropped Kaneland back below .500 at 8-9, it's still already better than their 5-win season in 2009. The Knights head back to Northern Illinois Big 12 action with a 1-2 record with a win over Sycamore and losses to DeKalb and Morris.

"We were real happy the first two days, the last two days showed some weaknesses where we have to go to work," Kaneland coach Ernie Colombe said. "We have areas we have to improve in. To me that is what we want to do before we get in conference."

West Aurora also improving: Besides Geneva, West Aurora had the best record at its Christmas tournament at 3-1.

The Blackhawks won their final three games at Wheaton North their first three wins of the year after an 0-11 start to claim the consolation title. Look for more of that success in the second half as the youngest roster in the area continues to get better.

Rest of the pack: St. Charles East also was at Wheaton North and went 1-3, the same record St. Charles North posted at Dundee-Crown, Batavia and Rosary both had at Oswego and Aurora Christian at Oswego East.

Aurora Central finished one win better than those four teams at 2-2, beating Aurora Christian for 13th place at Oswego East. The Chargers are 7-3 in their last 10 games after a 2-4 start and they can thank rebounders like Kaitlyn Rosa (18 against Aurora Christian) and Ashley Wilk for helping the team improve.

"It was a rough start for us but we hope to keep building and keep going," Wilk said.

"Rebounding is a strength for us this year. All of the people who play the post have played varsity since their freshman year. We have experience."

"Kaitlyn and Ashley are not very tall but they are extremely athletic and the high-low game is very strong," Chargers coach Mark Fitzgerald said. "We have quite a few weapons this year. They are starting to learn how to jell and play together."

More honors: Santos and Yelle weren't the only all-tournament selections. Teammate Scofield also made it at Naperville North/Benet.

Batavia freshman Liza Fruendt and Rosary senior Breann Maryanski were selected at Oswego, and St. Charles North point guard Sydney Russell got a spot at Dundee-Crown.

jlemon@dailyherald.com