As the Highland Bulldogs concluded their final practice session before getting on the bus for a trip to Normal and the Class 3A Girls State Tournament late Wednesday afternoon a large box filled with red warm-up T-shirts were being unloaded and stacked on the bleachers by student managers.
The names of each player across the letters in back, the words “Making History” were printed on the front. For the 2015-16 Highland Bulldogs, that says it all.
The Bulldogs (30-4) will make their state tournament debut at noon on Friday when they take on the (Chicago) North Lawndale Phoenix (22-11) in a Class 3A State Tournament semifinal at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University.
“What does it feel like to be the first team from Highland to play in the state tournament? It’s awesome,’’ said junior guard Madison Wellen. “We’re all really close and for me it’s great because we’ve been playing together for so long.
“I got moved up to the eighth grade team when I was in the seventh grade which means a lot of us have been together for five years. We’ve been through a lot together. To be able to play in the state tournament with this group of seniors is something I’ll always remember.”
And hopefully Wellen and the Bulldogs aren’t done yet.
After falling short in super-sectional appearances under coach Paul James in 1983-84 and then Matt Elledge in 2007-08, the Bulldogs got over the hump on Monday with a 48-40 win over Lincoln at the Springfield Super-Sectional.
“Did I expect to be here in this position with a team playing in the state tournament? I’ve expected to be here each of the years I’ve been at Highland High School,’’ Bulldogs coach third-year coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “The first couple of years we came up short. But this group of kids is special. They are a very close knit group and each of them have played roles in us getting to this point. But hopefully we’re not done yet.”
A member of the famed Chicago Public League, North Lawndale is also making its state tournament debut after edging Johnsburg 50-41 at the River Forest Super-Sectional on Monday. The Phoenix feature an up-tempo style team which in the past has struggled to get past perennial power Chicago Marshall.
But after disposing of Marshall 51-48 in the sectional final, North Lawndale and coach Corey Morgan would like nothing more then to end the Bulldogs’ state title dreams in a battle of tournament rookies.
“Athletically, they remind me of Belleville East or Belleville West. Probably more of Belleville East because most of the time they’ll run a four-guard offense with one big player inside,” Arbuthnot said about North Lawndale. “They’re quick, very quick at the guard spots and they take a lot of 3-point (shots). Defensively, they will play man-to-man and they’ll switch to zone. Offensively or defensively, they don’t do anything we haven’t seen before. It’s just a matter of taking care of the basketball and executing on both ends of the floor.”
Freshman guard Jada Thorpe and sophomore DeAsa Allen lead the Phoenix’ offense. Thorpe is averaging 14.1 points per game while the lightning quick Allen is right at 10.8 points. The duo has also combined to make 112 of 328 3-point attempts. A third guard, junior Kia Brooks, has made 38 of 106 3-point attempts and is averaging 8.8 points per game.
Junior DeShoney Bibbie and junior Kimrya McGhee round out the North Lawndale starting five.
One of the 11 losses by the Phoenix came to Chicago Morgan Park 73-71 in the Chicago Public League playoffs. Morgan Park will take on defending Class 3A state champion Morton in the second semifinal on Friday at 1:45 p.m.
Scouting the Bulldogs
Co-champions of the rugged Mississippi Valley Conference, Highland, like North Lawndale, relies on a balanced scoring attack which is led by a dominant go-to player. In the Bulldogs case, that player is senior Amanda Ponce, an honorable mention Class 3A all-state selection. The 5-foot-9 Ponce leads Highland in scoring at 13.6 points per game and like all great players, the Maryville University recruit is the type player who wants the ball in her hands with the game on the line.
Ponce also leads the Bulldogs in 3-point field goals (37), assists (106) and is second behind 6-foot junior Alex LaPorta in rebounds with 148. LaPorta, one of the top rebounders in the St. Louis area, has 364 rebounds to go along with her 9.7 point per game scoring average. Wellen, also becoming more of a force as the season goes on, averages right at 9.9 points per game.
Senior sharpshooter Caitlin Lammers (6.5 ppg) and steady sophomore Rece Portell (3.2 ppg) round out the starting five for the Bulldogs. But Arbuthnot can and will go to his bench where junior Katie Kampwerth headlines a strong group of the Bulldogs’ leading reserves.
As far as leadership both on and off the court during the season, it’s been Ponce and Lammers who have led the way.
“Our seniors have done a tremendous job of helping to bring this group along,” Arbuthnot said. “They have been ideal leaders both on and off the court.”
“We were scheduled to practice at Redbird on Thursday morning so instead of getting up early and rushing we thought we would leave Wednesday, eat a good meal and just let the girls get settled in at the hotel,” Arbuthnot said. “Then we’ll practice and watch the 3-point contest on Thursday. We want this to be a fun experience for the girls. Things like this don’t come around often.”