Playing at a high level at this time of year is nothing new for the Central Cougars, whose success in the postseason over the past decade speaks for itself.
The Class 2A state champions in 2007 and second in the state finals in 2012 and again last year, Central again finds itself one game away from a trip to Redbird Arena in Normal. The Cougars will take on a surging Camp Point Central team, which like Central, is playing its best basketball of the season heading into the Jacksonville Super-Sectional at Illinois College at 7 p.m. Monday.
The Panthers (26-5) have won 20 straight games and captured the third sectional title in school history when they rallied from a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat Havana to win the Beardstown Sectional 63-61 on Thursday.
“Camp Point is very talented and well-coached. They have an athletic small forward and good guards to go around her,’’ Cougars coach Nathan Rueter said. “They play an uptempo style and like to pressure all over the floor.’’
While the Panthers are playing well in the 2016 postseason, they figure to have their hands full with Central (27-5), which has overcome a season-ending ending injury to senior guard Alicia Book before the year began. Central has also been hampered by other ailments to several players including all-state center Kendra Wilken and sophomore guard Faye Meissner.
Still, the Cougars have been ranked as the top-ranked Class 2A team in the state for much of the year.
With the usual target on their backs, which comes from being the top small school team in the area and battling injuries the entire season, the Cougars have gotten strong play off the bench and used the leadership of a strong senior class to enjoy another successful year.
With the 6-2 all-state Wilken and two of the top guards in the St. Louis area in Meissner and Grace Yaunches leading the way, Central won another Cahokia Conference title, placed second at the Mascoutah Invitational and won the Highland Tournament.
“Certainly we have had our fair share of adversity. I think it really speaks to the quality of depth,’’ Rueter said. “Our younger kids have really stepped up their game over the course of the season. They push our seniors to get better every day.
“At this point, we are as healthy as we are going to be. Faye (Meisser) is going to experiment with a brace over the next couple of days and see if she feels comfortable moving around on it.’’
Cougars feeling a sense of urgency
Central lost is regular season finale to Belleville East when both Wilken and Meissner sat out, but have been on a mission in the postseason. Led by the brilliance of Wilken, a St. Louis University recruit, the Cougars have been pushed by only Althoff so far in the postseason.
Perhaps the most active on the offensive end of the court than she’s been in her career, Wilken has been unstoppable in the last three games, averaging 31 points and 14 rebounds per outing.
“Overall, I think the entire team is just playing with a great sense of urgency right now,” Rueter said. “We have a large group of seniors that understand the significance of the moment. They have all elevated their game over the past month.’’
The winner of the Camp Point Central-Central game advances to the Class 2A State Tournament semifinals Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal, where it will play either Byron or Peoria Christian at 8:15 p.m.
Byron and Peoria Christian are playing at the Monmouth College Super-Sectional on Monday.