The Highland Bulldogs enter their Class 3A State Tournament semifinal on Friday with Chicago North Lawndale with a 30-4 record and a wealth of experience under their belts.
During the 2015-16 dream season, Highland battled in one of the most competitive Mississippi Valley Conference races in recent history and finished in a tie Triad for the league championship. The Bulldogs were the only team to beat Class 2A power Breese Central twice — including in the title game of the Mascoutah Holiday Tournament — then defeated MVC rival Civic Memorial for a third time this season in the title game of the Benton Sectional.
On Monday with the pressure of perhaps becoming the first girls basketball team in school history to reach the state tournament, the Bulldogs again rose to the occasion, beating Lincoln at the Springfield Super-Sectional.
And so is it any wonder that coach Mike Arbuthnot doesn’t expect to see many nervous players when Highland begins its state quest when it takes the floor at Redbird Arena in Normal at noon on Friday.
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“I really don’t. Not with this group,” Arbuthnot said on Wednesday. “Throughout the tournament the last couple of weeks and as the games have gotten bigger in larger venues with more people watching, we’ve shown very little sign of being nervous.
“Now when we take the court on Friday, will there be nerves? Of course there will. It’s only natural. But honestly, this team is one that just goes out and gives everything it has. I don’t think this team will get caught up in playing in Redbird Arena.”
Voted as an Associated Press Class 3A honorable mention all-state selection in the list of players which were announced on Thursday, senior Amanda Ponce is one of the more poised players on the Bulldogs roster. Leading Highland in scoring at just under 14 points per game, Ponce is at or near the top of most offensive categories for the Bulldogs.
Like Arbuthnot, Ponce says she’s not feeling any pressure.
“It’s just another game. That’s how I’m approaching it,” Ponce said. “We’ve worked very hard for this chance and now that it’s here and we’re going to play in the state tournament semifinals we’re going to make the most of it.
“I’m not feeling any pressure and I don’t think any of my teammates are as well. We’re going up and we’re assured of playing two games. We’re coming home with a trophy and no matter what we’ll be one of the top four teams in the state. That’s pretty good.”
A close knit group
There is quiet confidence surrounding the Bulldogs program heading into the state finals. With Ponce and Caitlin Lammers as the lone seniors on this junior-dominated squad, the duo has been leaders and true role models for a HIghland squad which has grown up together — both on and off the court.
“That’s a big part of it,” Highland junior Madison Wellen said. “We’ve grown up playing basketball together. We’ve played together, some of four or five years and I think that’s why we play so well as a team. On the court, we know what we’re going to do. We don’t even have to think about it. Plus the fact that we’re all good friends and do things together when we’re not on the court helps as well.
“I’m just so happy for our seniors. Getting to play in the state tournament in their last year is great because they’ve worked so hard for this. We all have.’’
Arbuthnot hopeful heading into Normal
While most basketball people in the know are looking at the winner of the second semifinal between Chicago Morgan Park and defending state champion Morton as the favorite to win the state title on Saturday afternoon, Arbuthnot is looking first at defeating a super quick and athletic North Lawndale team as the Bulldogs’ primary objective.
“The longer you play the postseason, the more you want. It’s like when you win a regional, you’re thinking, well maybe we can win one more and get to the sectional final. Then when you win that game, its like, well maybe we can go in and get the sectional title. You always want more,” Arbuthnot said. “Well that’s the case with us right now. We want more. Right now, we’re elated and excited to be in the state tournament semifinals.
“It’s great the way the school and community has gotten behind this basketball team. But while we’re happy to be here, we’re not satisfied.”