Before watching his team win its ninth regional championship in the last 10 years Thursday, Central Cougars girls basketball coach Nathan Rueter was a bit apprehensive heading into the game.
His team took most of the worrying away, building a nine-point halftime lead on the way to a 51-34 victory over the Wesclin Warriors in th
e title game of the Class 2A Carlyle Regional.
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It was Central’s third win over Cahokia Conference rival Wesclin this season, following up earlier 48-32 and 60-46 victories. The Cougars got 16 points from junior center Kendra Wilken, 12 from junior Alicia Book and 10 from junior Kaylee Schrand.
“I was really nervous about this game,” said Rueter, whose 27-3 squad will face Carterville at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Wesclin Sectional. “You’d think after 10 years in a row of being in this game you wouldn’t be nervous about it, but I have a lot of respect for (Wesclin) Coach (Ben) Crawford and his program.
“I know how hard it is to win these things. There’s a lot of schools that very rarely have this opportunity. We’ve been very blessed.”
During the last decade, Central won a state title in 2007 and finished second in 2012 to go along with all the regional and sectional titles.
Central led 12-6 after one quarter, but Wilken left the game in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. That could have given the Warriors (18-11) and opening, but the Cougars’ tightened up the defense with their star center on the bench.
“Early in the game we stayed in it because we rebounded well and it helped that Kendra got a couple fouls and she was out,” Crawford said.
However, no Wesclin player reached double-figure scoring, something Rueter was extremely happy about. Zoe Christopher, Kenzie Kellogg and Carrie Rakers scored eight points each for Wesclin.
“Especially considering the personnel that they have,” Rueter said. “They had three kids averaging in double figures, so if we’re able to go out and not allow anybody to get there that’s a testament to the kids and all the work they put in.”
Central also got valuable contributions from numerous players, including Sophie Rickhoff, Book, Schrand and Grace Yaunches. As a result, Wilken’s time on the bench wasn’t noticed nearly as much as it might have been.
“You always have to be prepared for worst-case scenario and her getting in foul trouble like that kind of was,” Rueter said. “But we were able to do some things and keep them on their toes a little bit, keep them out of rhythm offensively.”
Wesclin did not go away quietly as the Warriors cut an 18-point lead down to 34-26 with a 12-4 run in the third quarter. But just as quickly as they got close, the Warriors were unable to stop Central from adding to the lead and the Cougars cruised the rest of the way.
“I just told the girls going into this game not to look at the scoreboard, play as hard as they could,” Crawford said. “At times we did have some success, in the third quarter we cut an 18-point lead down to eight at one point then they pulled away in the fourth quarter.
“You’ve got to give it to them for putting out the effort and taking us down for the third time.”