The quest to three-peat is about to begin for the Central Cougars.
The premier Class 2A girls basketball program in Southern Illinois, Central looks to continue its recent domination of the Mascoutah Girls Invitational Basketball Tournament when it battles Christopher in one of eight first round games on Monday at Mascoutah High School.
Despite losing spark-plug point guard Sophie Rickhoff to graduation a year ago then being dealt a severe blow when its outstanding senior guard Alicia Book suffered a possible season ending ankle injury in preseason workouts, the Cougars haven’t missed a beat in winning 10 of their first 11 games.
Led by senior all-state center Kendra Wilken and one of the top big-game players in Southern Illinois in senior guard Grace Yaunches, the Cougars enter their 2:30 p.m. matchup with tournament newcomer Christopher riding a seven-game winning streak.
Central’s only loss of the season came against O’Fallon (41-35) in the O’Fallon Tournament. Wilken, a St. Louis University recruit, leads Central in scoring at 17.5 points per game, while Yaunches has also added 10 points per game. But others such as guard Faye Meissner (6.0) and senior forward Kaylee Schrand have also added punch to the Cougars offense.
Despite the loss of Book, Central coach Nathan Rueter has been pleased by what he has seen in the early going.
“We’ve played well for the most part and we’ve had some players step up and play well. Defensively, we’ve also played well,’’ Rueter said. “The Mascoutah Tournament is always an excellent tournament and one that gives us a chance to see where we are and what we need to work on heading into the second part of the season.’’
Tournament action begins at 8:30 a.m. Monday when Highland (7-3) battles Althoff (2-9). Seven other first round games will follow with Belleville West, which has lost the title game the last two years to Central, taking a 7-3 mark into a 7 p.m. contest with Mount Vernon in the final first round game.
Tournament action continues on Tuesday and Wednesday with the title game set for 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Other first-round games on Monday include Nashville (7-2) battling O’Fallon (5-4) at 10 a.m., Mater Dei (4-5) taking on Belleville East (7-4) at 11:30 a.m. and McCluer battling Carbondale at 1 p.m.
The Central-Christopher game will be followed by Okawville (6-3) taking on Centralia at 4 p.m. and Mascoutah ( 7-4) playing Riverview Gardens at 5:30 p.m.
Of the local teams competing, only Mater Dei (4-5) and Althoff (2-9) have losing records heading into tournament play.
Other top teams to watch.
One game not possible is a third straight Belleville West-Central contest as both teams are in the bottom bracket and would not meet until a semifinal contest at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
The top half of the bracket appears to be wide open with Highland, Nashville, O’Fallon, Okawville and Mater Dei all having legitimate chances of reaching the title game.
Highland, led by senior guard Amanda Ponce (15.2) has won four games in a row since losing to Class 3A power Triad. The Bulldogs have also gotten key contributions from Madison Wellen (10.7) and Alex LaPorta (10.9).
Nashville, under first year coach Doug Althoff, has won five games in a row, including a victory over preseason River-to-River Conference favorite Carterville, while Okawville, despite being sophomore-heavy, has also played well in the early going.
Sophomore Madison Hackstadt (14.6) leads the Rockets in scoring.
The favorites in the upper bracket however could be Belleville East, O’Fallon or Mater Dei.
Under the leadership of coach David Kohnen, the Knights have shown improvement — beating Okawville and Mascoutah — after a 2-5 start. Of the Knights five losses, two came against Hardin Calhoun, the 2015 Class 1A state runner up and Central, which was the Class 2A state finals runner up. Logan Braundmeier leads Mater Dei in scoring at 11.6 points per game.
Belleville East, although inconsistent. may be the most athletic team in the 16-team field. Senior guard Ellisha Davis (10.1) and freshman Myriah Haywoood (10.5) are a dynamic and lightning quick back-court duo.
O’Fallon, which has already lost twice to Belleville East, has also shown signs of brilliance, beating Central. But coach Ryan Massey’s team has been plagued by inconsistent play from a young squad.
Belleville West, along with Central, Mater Dei and Highland, may be playing as well as any team heading into the Mascoutah Invitational. The Maroons have won three games in a row after a 30-point drubbing to Class 4A state power Edwardsville two weeks ago.
Senior guard Erika Harvey (10.1) and freshman Chamya Darough (10.6) lead a balanced Maroons attack, which like so many of the teams in the field, is loaded with young talent.
“We’ve played well for the most part. I would just like to see us play a little more consistent for four quarters. It seems we’ve played good for two quarters and not so good for the other two,’’ Maroons first-year coach Seth Garrett said. “I’m anxious to see how we play at Mascoutah.’’
The team standing in the way of a possible Central-West game in the semifinals appears to be the host Mascoutah Indians. Led by defensive-minded head coach Terry Moeller, the Indians are led by one of the top perimeter shooters in the metro-east in senior Maddie Nekola (14.8) and a strong inside player in senior Katie Jokisch.
Belleville East 7-4
Belleville West 7-3
Mater Dei 4-5