As the Central Cougars ended their final practice Wednesday in preparation for the Class 3A state girls basketball tournament in Normal, coach Nathan Rueter left the gym, returning a few minutes later with 20 purple balloons.
After one last quick word with his team, Rueter, along with his three assistant coaches separated the balloons, giving each player one as they left for the day.
Now in his 13th season at Central, Rueter and the Cougars will make their fourth IHSA state tournament appearance since 2007 when they take on (LaGrange Park) Nazareth Academy in a Class 3A semifinal at 12:45 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena.
For Rueter, a 1996 graduate of Highland High School, coaching high school girls basketball seemed unimaginable two decades ago. Now, he can't envision himself doing anything else.
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"After high school and then college, I knew I wanted to coach, but I was thinking maybe either boys basketball or baseball," Rueter said. "But I was fortunate in that I got a teaching job in a school district that had an opening for a girls basketball coach. Careerwise, it's really been the best thing which could have happened.
"I think I've become a better coach simply over time. You coach for so many years and in so many games that you learn as you go along."
Rueter and the Cougars will need to be at their best against the Roadrunners (30-2) on Friday. Nazareth Academy, a member of the East Suburban Catholic Conference, features 5-foot-11 junior Annie Stritzel (24.1 ppg), 6-2 senior Marissa Metz and 6-4 senior Alyssa Geary in its stating five.
"They are the most offensively skilled team we've played all year, no doubt," Rueter said. "How do we attempt to slow them down and stay competitive? We're going to have to deviate from the norm.
"Obviously there are a number of looks we can give them with different zone defenses and some things we can do in the man-to-man. But I think we have to find a way to limit the number of touches their post players get."
If any team can slow down the Roadrunners, it might be the defensive-minded Cougars. In five postseason games, Central has allowed 36 points just once and has held three of its opponents under 30 points.
Rueter is quick to share the credit for the Cougars success with his assistant coaches, Kelly Schumacher, Angela Kohlbrecher and Kelsie Netemeyer.
Schumacher has been with the program the longest. Now in her 12th season, the former Okawville High School and McKendree University standout, has nothing but high praise for the Cougars' longtime coach.
"Coach Rueter is without question the most detailed, most organized and most well-planned coach in the area," she said. "There is nothing that coach Rueter doesn't go over with himself and his team before every game.
"I am not taking anything away from these girls and all the hard work that they have put in. He expects a lot from them, and they have had a tremendous season. But coach Rueter, he is the best."
Rueter also has had success at the state tournament level. The 2007 team, led by Jessica Hemann, Katelin Wiegemann and Lauren Budde, finished 30-4 and won the Class A state title when it beat Rochester 47-41 in the championship game. The Cougars were also second in Class 2A in both 2012 and 2015.
Current senior Faye Meissner, an all-state honorable mention by the Illinois Associated Press, was a key contributor on the team that placed second three years ago. But now in just their second season of competing at the Class 3A level, the Cougars are two wins away from another state crown.
"Did I expect us to be here, playing in the state tournament semifinals? No, I'm not going to lie and say that I did," Rueter said. "I did expect us to be better this year because of the number of quality players we had coming back. I expected we would have a chance to join the 20-win plateau and that we had a chance to do well in some of our tournaments.
"But as far as reaching the state tournament, I really didn't give it much thought."
The Cougars' leaders have been senior co-captains Meissner, Clarece Jansen and Carson Newkirk. But as Rueter concluded, it's been a team effort.
"For the most part, these kids understand what their roles are on this basketball team. That's been a huge plus for us," he said. "Something else which has really helped us is that whenever we've had somebody have an off night rebounding or scoring, we've had other players pick up the load. Good teams do that.
"Expectations, I think partly because of what we've done in the past, are usually pretty high. But this group has overachieved."