Two teams hope another year of experience helps them take the next step, two perennial favorites have reloaded for another long run, and a fourth team has assembled a roster deep with talent it hopes can push them over the top.
Time will tell if the high school girls basketball teams listed below are really the best in a region stacked with talent, but here are five teams the sports staff of the Belleville News-Democrat thinks can rally deep into the postseason:
Belleville East, Class 4A
The Lancers wrapped up last season with a 20-10 record and a crushing 37-point loss to Edwardsville in the regional finals. Though still young — head coach Amanda Kemezys will start at least three juniors — they bring back plenty of experience and scoring.
At 15.3 points per game, Kaylah Rainey was among the top scoring sophomores last season, but she also added 144 steals. Her ranking by ESPN as the nation’s 10th best point guard from the class of 2019 has attracted the big-school likes of Kansas, Iowa and Illinois. The third-team all-state pick also been offered by Yale, Brown and Penn of the Ivy League, among her other suitors.
But the Lancers are more than one player.
Brittney Nitz, who averaged 11.8 points per game a year ago, and Jailyn McClenny, who added 6.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, are the only returning seniors on the East roster. Junior Bryce Dowell scored 8.3 points per game as a sophomore and figures to grow into an expanded role.
A key addition to coach Amanda Kemezys’ team is junior B’Aunce Carter, who scored 12.4 points and had 5.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Belleville West last year.
Edwardsville, Class 4A
Edwardsville fell one point short of perfection last season, absorbing their only loss to Geneva in the finals of the IHSA Class 4A championship game. If not for Stephanie Hart’s game-winner with five seconds left, the Tigers would have been just the 16th of 90 previous champions to go the season without a blemish.
What’s left to motivate the Tigers for 2017-18?
Coach Lori Blade lost All-State pick Makenzie Silvey (15.8 ppg, 116 assists) and Criste’on Waters (7.8 ppg, 51 blocked shots) to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Both were 1,000-point scorers in their careers.
But a strong and experienced core returns. Senior Rachel Pranger, a Division-I prospect in both basketball and volleyball, had a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game to go with her 13.1 points. Senior Kate Martin, who has committed to Iowa, scored 12.9 points per game and led the team with 91 steals. Myriah Noodel-Haywood, a Kansas State recruit, scored 7.9 points per game and had 3.9 rebounds but grew into a larger role as the season progressed.
She won’t get there this season, but with 656 wins over her 23 years Blade is approaching an exclusive club of seven Illinois coaches to achieve 700 wins.
Highland, Class 3A
Three big pieces of the team that won a school-record 31 games and finished third in Illinois Class 3A are gone. But a young core of returning talent makes Highland the favorite to win its fifth straight Mississippi Valley Conference and make another deep post-season run.
Seven graduated from last season’s team, including top-scorer Madison Wellen (17.7 ppg, 5 rpg) and Alex LaPorta (13.8 ppg, 12.0 rpg). That leaves just two seniors on the current roster, notably Rece Portell, who averaged 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Senior forward Lauren Baer also is back.
The only other returning starter is sophomore guard Ellie Brown, who led the Bulldogs with 127 assists last year, scored 20 points in this season’s opening win against Centralia, and is so far averaging 14.7 points per game.
Four juniors on the team were Class L state champions as eighth-graders. They included Emmy Nyquist who didn’t average 2 points per game last year, but has been in double figures in two of Highland’s first three games of 2017-18, all of them wins.
How the roster will be utilized on the court is a mystery, even to coach Mike Arbuthnot.
“I am hoping that, being positionless and not so predictable, we will be able utilize the kids’ strengths,” he said. “And our strengths are our quickness and our effort, because we will play hard, and I think we will be able to shoot the ball well.”
Lebanon, Class 1A
Lebanon has been the dominant class 1A team in the metro-east over the last three years, amassing 76 victories in that span of time. But the Greyhounds’ road to state has run through Hardin-Calhoun and Grace Baalman, who nipped Lebanon in the sectionals on their way to their own state championship in 2016 and a third-place finish last spring.
Baalman has finally moved on to the University of Kentucky to play softball and the Greyhounds — 28-2 a year ago and off to a 4-0 start this season — bring back all of their key components.
The Bass twins lead the way. Kendra Bass averaged 16.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. Krista Bass put up 10.4 points to go with 4.6 boards and 76 assists and 102 steals. Emily Reinneck also averaged in double figures with 13.2 points per game and Madison Schoenfeld led the team with 7.2 rebounds. Both are back, as is Casey Berberich, who averaged 7.6 points per game.
The Greyhounds were the top pick of area coaches in the first BND girls basketball poll of the season.
“These girls play basketball to have fun and when you approach the game that way, you play relaxed and whatever happens, happens,” said head coach Chad Cruthis.
Okawville, Class 1A
The Okawville Rockets’ strength in 2017-18 is easy to spot. It’s depth and experience. They bring back nine players who appeared in at least 15 games for a team that went 23-7 and advanced to the sectional finals a year ago.
And all of them can score.
Senior Madison Hackstadt — who recently signed her national letter of intent to continue playing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville — leads the way. The 6-foot forward and three-sport athlete averaged 15.3 points and 5.4 rebounds as a junior and was a third-team all-state pick.
Three other seniors also bring scoring and leadership. Madelyn Tepe averaged 7.6 points and 3.4 rebounds and Audrey Jansen contributed 6.9 points and 4.5 boards. Casean Tebbe added 8.1 points and 3.5 rebounds.
Junior Kate Lohman (5.3 points) and sophomore Megan Schleifer also will figure into the action for coach Michelle Hasheider-Burianek.
Any first-place vote that Lebanon didn’t get in BND preseason poll went to the Rockets.