Burlington Central enlightened by state experience

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NORMAL — The expressions on the faces of Sam Pryor, Alison Colby and Kayla Ross on Saturday looked like they had just learned something about themselves and their Burlington Central’s girls basketball team.

Call it an expression of enlightenment.

Along with the school’s first-ever state basketball trophy for fourth place in Class 3A, the Rockets came away from their experience at Redbird Arena believing they now had a very good idea of what it will take to make the next step and win a state title in the future. And they think they can do it.

“Something I took away from this was I came into this just happy to be here,” said Pryor, a sophomore and the Rockets’ scoring leader. “It was like our supersectional last year — I came into it just happy to be there and this year we went down there wanting to win it.

“Next year we’re going to be here to win it.”

It may seem a bold statement, considering the Rockets lost 64-40 in the third-place game to Quincy Notre Dame.

Still, the loss was deceiving. It came against a veteran Raiders team that had rebounded well emotionally from a semifinal loss. Veteran teams frequently do. Bartlett did it in Class 4A in 2012 for third place.

The Rockets had taken eventual state champion Montini to the limit, leading with less than three minutes remaining before losing 34-26 in Friday’s semifinals. A young team without a senior in its top seven didn’t bounce back from the disappointment of a narrow loss like a veteran team might.

They did bounce back with a respectable second half after getting outscored 42-21 the first half by Quincy Notre Dame.

“We finished as a team,” Colby said. “That’s something to be proud of, I think.”

As the lone public school in the 3A Final Four, the Rockets achieved a 28-4 record and go forward realizing it might take better ability to stand up to pressure on offense to achieve what they want. They committed 47 turnovers in two games at state.

It didn’t diminish what they had achieved, though.

“It’s just been an awesome experience,” Burlington Central coach Mark Smith said. “We just say many, many times look around and soak it all in because you never know if it’s going to happen again.”

Next year is promised to no one. The state might intervene and change up the route to make it even more difficult for Central. Already, too, there is talk of some larger schools dropping down into 3A, chiefly Class 4A supersectional qualifier Rockford Boylan. That could make a repeat trip more difficult.

And it’s always difficult to account for upsets. Huntley thought it would be at state again last year, but didn’t make it. Wheaton-Warrenville South thought it would be at state two straight years and never made it.

Central got its medals and trophy at halftime of the championship game, then left for a celebration Saturday night at the school.

Just before receiving the hardware, Smith was already thinking about the possibility of making it a larger trophy next season.

“One of the goals we wrote at the beginning of the year was ‘Let’s go downstate,’” Smith said. “And I think the goal I’m going to try to emphasize next year is ‘Let’s win state.’”

The players — as well as the coaches — had caught the state title fever at this year’s state tourney.

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