Vernon Hills girls reflect on ‘one heck of a ride’

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VERNON HILLS — It was Feb. 8, 2012, and the Vernon Hills girls basketball team was getting pummeled at home in the NSC title game against Libertyville.

The Cougars — who at the time featured a pair of fresh-faced sophomores in Syd Smith and Lauren Webb along with then-junior Meri Bennett-Swanson (now at DePaul) — were about to make history.

They lost by 12 that night, but the game was a turning point.

“Looking back, I don’t think any of us could’ve seen what was coming,” Smith said. “It was an incredible run from then on.”

Just a few short weeks after losing to Libertyville that night, the Cougars found themselves in the Class 3A state title game against powerhouse Montini — a place almost no one thought they’d be.

“It all seems like it flew by so fast,” Webb said.

Montini got the best of Vernon Hills in the championship. But the Cougars weren’t done.

In 2013, with a target on their backs all season, the Cougars made it downstate a second straight time with the Big 3 of Bennett-Swanson, Smith and Webb. They got some redemption by dethroning Montini (the three-time defending champs) in the state semifinals. This from a school that a few years prior had never won as much as a regional title in girls hoops.

“I’ll never forget that [Montini] moment,” said Smith, who plans to play for Vermont in college. “No one expected us to do what we did the first time, then we did it again. Even though we lost both times in the championship game, it created a bond and memories among me and my teammates that will last a lifetime.”

The graduation of Bennett-Swanson in 2013, coupled with a preseason foot injury that caused Webb to miss significant time this winter, made it appear as if Vernon Hills’ number was up. But when Webb returned for good, the Cougars reeled off 13 straight wins at the end of the regular season.

That included an epic victory in their final home game against Zion-Benton, which resulted in back-to-back conference titles. But as Smith noted throughout the year, every team is different.

When the Cougars lost as the top seed to Carmel in the Class 3A Ridgewood Sectional title game Feb. 27, it was literally the end of an era.

It was the Cougars’ lone loss with Webb in the lineup this season. They were just two wins shy of becoming the first girls team in Lake County history to advance downstate three consecutive years.

“What Syd, Lauren and others have done here is beyond words,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. “They’re great kids. They leave a legacy here.”

“I know we lost our final game against Carmel, but I keep thinking back to the game before, against North Chicago, in the sectional semifinal this year,” Webb added. “We were quicker than we’d been on defense all season and it was one of our best games.

“It goes to show you, even when you’re really good, or a really good team, there’s always something you can work on getting better at or improve upon. Even if it’s your final game of the season. That’s a message I hope us seniors have left behind for those who play here after us. It’s been an absolute pleasure to play here, to be a part of this team … this community. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, honestly.”

In addition to losing Smith (the school’s all-time leading scorer) and Webb, Vernon Hills graduates seniors Katherine Koczwara and Shannon Healey. Juniors Kasey Firnbach, Haley Lieberman, Monica Bahlmann and Katie Brettman should provide a strong cornerstone in 2014-15, along with sophomores Dana Meline, Danielle Comitor and other underclassmen.

“It’s been something,” Brettner said. “One heck of a ride.”

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