By Bryan Bloodworth
NORMAL – At the beginning of the season, the El Paso-Gridley High School girls’ basketball team talked about dreaming big.
That meant the school’s first-ever trip to the Class 2A state tournament finals at Redbird Arena at the end of the season.
The No. 5 state-ranked Titans (29-1) get to realize that dream Friday when they meet top-rated Champaign St. Thomas More )31-2) in a semifinal round game at 8:15 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday’s state championship game.
“Why can’t this be our year?” asked Titans’ coach Kyle Bobbitt, who has compiled a 111-27 record in five seasons, including an 83-4 mark over the last three years. “Our conference (Heart of Illinois) has put a team in the state tournament every year it’s been in existence.
“We knew we had a great opportunity this year. We have a great group of girls who believe in themselves and in each other. They did what it takes. They made the commitment to do what we had to do.”
Senior guard Darien DeVary agrees.
“When we started over the summer I knew we would get this far,” said DeVary. “It’s been in all of our heads. We work well as a team and are very unselfish. We share the ball well.”
The Titans’ lone loss came in the second game of the State Farm Holiday Classic to Class 3A Rochester, 41-38. Since that time, El Paso-Gridley has won 17 straight.
“We’re playing our best basketball right now,” added Bobbitt. “We are doing what it takes to win. We’re going up against bigger teams, more athletic teams at times, but our girls are playing with a lot of heart and laying everything on the line for each other.”
The Titans are led in scoring by juniors Rebekah Ehresman and Codee Schlipf. The 5-foot-7 Ehresman averages 16.5 points, while the 5-10 Schlipf scores 11.5 per game. Ehresman pulls down 5.6 rebounds per game and has 133 assists.
Other starters are 5-7 senior guard Jenna Souhrada, 5-8 senior forward Chelsea Kessinger and 5-6 senior forward Mattie Buchanan. Darien DeVary, a 5-9 senior guard, is the first player off the bench.
The Titans have used a scrappy, pressing defense to its advantage all season and Bobbitt said the same will be true against Thomas More.
“We like an up-tempo style,” Bobbitt continued. “We have to create opportunities on the defensive end for our offense. Thomas More has very good guards and will look to go.
“So as far as pressing goes, we’ll try to change it up to where we can catch them off-guard to create those opportunities more than just straight, in-your-face pressure trapping everywhere.”
St. Thomas More’s only losses have been to Class 4A Champaign Centennial (48-43) and Chicago Whitney Young (60-51).
The Sabres, who are coached by former Illinois State assistant women’s coach Chris Mennig, have three players who average in double figures.
The group includes 5-11 sophomore guard-forward Lexi Wallen (15.2), 6-4 forward Tori McCoy (15.0) and 5-5 guard Randa Harshbarger (12.4). Jade Brinkotter scores 9.2 per game.
McCoy averages 10.4 rebounds per game, while Wallen grabs 6.4 per outing. It will be Buchanan’s job to slow McCoy down.
“I will try to take her out of the game by pushing her down under the basket and try not to let her get the ball,” said Buchanan. “We know they have some really good players who are all very athletic.
“We know we will have to play our best basketball in order to beat them and we’ll have to do it at the defensive end.”
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at email@example.com