MORRIS — Last winter, the Minooka girls basketball team finished with a 24-4 record, including 13-1 in the Southwest Prairie Conference, and reached the Class 4A regional championship game.
By any measure, that was a successful season and, with the loss due to graduation of four of the key members of that club, expectations for this coming year were uncertain. It would be natural to expect a slight dip in performance given what was lost.
But, what hasn't been taken into account by doing that is the improvement of what the players that are returning.
The Indians showed that they will again be a force to be reckoned with, as they went 2-1 on the second day of the 21st Annual Morris Ladies Shootout to finish in third place in the championship bracket, marking the best finish at the tourney in school history.
Except for one stretch of five minutes or so at the start of the second half in a semifinal loss to eventual tournament champion Kaneland, Minooka's defense carried them throughout the two-day, 32-team event. The defense triggered the offense, as countless steals were converted into easy baskets on the other end or opposing passes were deflected off their intended course, either into the waiting arms of another Minooka defender or out of bounds, forcing the opponent to start again.
When Minooka did have to run a set offense, much of it went through junior post player Savannah Johnson, whose mere presence inside is every bit as large as her stature at 6-foot-1. If Johnson doesn't touch the ball via a pass, she is setting picks to free up teammates and rolling to the basket to either receive a pass or crash the boards. And, once she gets her hands on the ball, she's tough to stop.
More than anything, though, she's ready for her time in the sun.
"We had so many great players last year," she said. "But I am ready make this our time. I am willing to be a leader of this team, and all of the girls just played great these last couple of days.
"I have been learning a lot in the off-season and I can't wait to get the season started and see what we can do."
Minooka coach Ray Liberatore is also anxious to see what this year's edition has to offer in the regular season.
"We're pretty excited about what we have," he said. "Obviously we had a good couple of days here, except for the one stretch against Kaneland.
"So far this summer, these girls have showed up when we have asked them to and worked hard. That's all you can ask as a coach. I think these girls get tired of hearing about how much they lost from last year and want to make their own mark."
Minooka showed up ready to work Wednesday morning in the opening round of the championship bracket, taking a 24-5 lead at halftime against Rock Island. They then were able to withstand a three-point shooting frenzy by the Rocks, who used the long-distance connection to pull to within 28-26 with 12:00 to play in the 20-minute second half. Minooka answered that with a 10-2 run of its own to push the lead back to 10 and eventually claimed a 46-38 victory.
Kaneland's three-point shooting spree to start the second half of the semifnal stretched a 21-19 halftime lead to 31-23 and Minooka could not recover. The Indians did get to within 35-33, but were never able to gain the advantage.
In the third-place game, Minooka controlled things throughout. Like they did all through the tournament, they rotated a five-person group of Johnson, Nicole Lovato, Jenna Roberts, Zoey Caves and Caitlyn Hoover with another consisting of Cierra Bachmann, Sophie Darden, Sydney Andreano, Allison Bugajski and Macie Alexa to keep fresh legs on the floor. They built a 33-17 halftime lead and won the game by a count of 59-39.