Bumpy stretch doesn’t faze confident Vernon Hills

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After an 18-game season-opening winning streak, a lot of teams might panic if they lost two games in a row.

The Vernon Hills girls basketball squad isn’t one of those teams.

The No. 18 Cougars were invincible until the second week of January, winning their games by an average of more than 20 points per contest. That all changed when they lost to North Suburban Conference foe Stevenson by seven points in a crossover game on Jan. 8. Vernon Hills followed that with a 23-point loss to Trinity four days later.

Worried? Not these girls. They’ve had a target on their backs since they made a run to the Class 3A state finals last season. Being the hunted is a role the Cougars have embraced.

“I wouldn’t say I’m relieved we no longer have to worry about an unbeaten season,” said Sydney Smith, a junior and the team’s leading scorer. “But there is a little bit of pressure taken off now because losing keeps you on your toes. It shows us that we have so many things we can still improve on. We have to get back in sync and keep working harder.”

After the two-game skid, Cougars coach Paul Brettner had time to reflect.

“I wasn’t disappointed with our effort during the two games we lost,” said Brettner, whose team rebounded to beat North Chicago 58-44 Thursday. “The Stevenson game was a good learning experience. We just didn’t finish some plays we needed to. It was a lot of little things. The girls missed a few box-outs, or there were times where we would double-up on a kid and were a split second late getting help to the ball. That resulted in some fouls instead of situations where we might ordinarily get steals. On top of that, some of our shots just didn’t fall. Those things happen sometimes.

“Against Trinity, just the intensity of (their) play was part of what did us in I think. That’s a team that plays super-hard, is super-competitive and all their players go all-out every single trip down the floor. Their coach is fantastic, and that’s a team I can see making some serious noise (in Class 4A) in the postseason.”

DePaul-bound senior Meri Bennett-Swanson said the Cougars just need to stick to fundamentals to make their two-game skid a distant memory.

“We had three really great practices after we lost those games,” Bennett-Swanson said. “Being down like we were in those two games isn’t something we’re too accustomed to, but it was definitely a learning experience. We simply need to get back to Vernon Hills basketball, and emphasizing the way we play. That means pushing the ball up the court after rebounds, getting the ball into the post more and working on the little things, like our offensive sets. It’s all about practice, hard work and repetition. I think we’ll be fine.”

At the same time, the team continues to keep things light-hearted when necessary. Earlier this month, the girls all showed up to class in onesie outfits, taking pictures and posting them on Twitter.

“There were so many teachers laughing when they saw how we were dressed,” Smith said. “At first, some of the girls on the team didn’t want to do it, but they eventually gave in with the rest of us.”

Such bonding exercises are a frequent thing for the Cougars.

Bennett-Swanson came up with a Hawaiian Shirt Day, and the players enjoy pasta parties every 1-2 weeks. They volunteered their time for a community service project Saturday, and that was followed by a team trip to a DePaul home game.

“Some teams say they get along, but all of us really do,” Smith said. “With our team, you don’t have a choice. We make it so you have to like the people you’re with. All the girls have really embraced it, which is why we’re not panicking and were able to stay so calm and cohesive after losing those two games. These experiences will only serve to make us stronger.”

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