BEECHER — With four starters back from last year’s undefeated Illinois Central Eight Conference championship-winning team — including Daily Journal All-Area and All-ICE selections Madi Schroeder, Mady Kibelkis and Jenna Hunter, the former two of which were also all-state honorable mentions — Peotone’s girls basketball team has entered the 2022-23 season with heaps of excitement and self-expectations.
The Blue Devils showed why they’re so eager this winter in Wednesday’s championship of the Beecher Fall Classic, where they defeated Andrew 49-33 for the tournament title after wrapping up a 5-0 effort during the tournament, with all five wins coming by double-digits.
“We came in with a really positive, strong mindset to compete,” Peotone coach Steve Strough said. “This is always a great tournament for us to start the year, and we came out from day one ready to go and just fed off of that.”
Hunter had a game-high 16 points to lead the Blue Devils, using her 5-foot-10 frame to her advantage in the post and her precise ball-handling skills on the perimeter to drive to the basket. A junior high point guard who developed into a forward last season, Hunter has emerged early in the season as a true dual-threat.
“Over the summer Jenna got into basketball shape and she’s getting into that mindset of going to the basket and finishing,” Strough said. “In junior high she was a point guard, so she has those ball-handling skills; so as a matchup she’s tough to guard as a forward and she’s big enough to back down someone smaller.
“She’s really learned how to exploit those matchups.”
Flanked by her fellow 5-foot-10 teammate in Schroeder, who also can be found in the lineup anywhere from point guard to center, Hunter said that her and Schroeder’s dynamic versatility provide the Blue Devils with an extra punch.
“It’s fun being able to play any position on the court,” Hunter said. “It’s a little difficult learning all the plays, but me and Madi Schroeder have been friends since fourth grade and we play very well together.
“We just love playing the game.”
While Hunter and Schroeder, who led the Blue Devils with six assists, were able to find their way to the basket, it set up room on the outside for Kibelkis (13 points, 3 3-pointers) and Addie Graffeo (12 points, 4 3-pointers) to combine for a 7-for-11 night from the 3-point line.
For Strough, signs like that are obviously encouraging, but he and his team know the season is just beginning and there’s still plenty of room for even more growth.
“It’s just the beginning, but I think they showed to themselves glimpses of what they’re capable of doing,” Strough said. “It’s just continuing to perfect that craft throughout the season, continue to build that chemistry and build from there.
“The girls have a lot of goals in mind and have to keep working hard to achieve them.”
And for Hunter and the rest of the girls, that all starts with a winning attitude.
“Our mindset is just not to lose,” Hunter said. “When we hit the floor our saying is ‘losing is not an option.’
“We win as a team and lose as a team, but at the end of the day losing isn’t in our book.”
Short-handed Boilermakers hold off Kankakee
In opposite pools of the Beecher Fall Classic, there’s not a guarantee of an All-City matchup in the early part of the season for Kankakee and Bradley-Bourbonnais. But that’s exactly what happened for the second-straight season when the two rivals met in Wednesday’s fifth-place matchup, one that Bradley-Bourbonnais took with a 42-33 win.
The victory that improved the Boilermakers to 3-2 on the year and dropped the Kays to 3-3 came while Bradley-Bourbonnais was without three players, including starter Kate Spittall, and head coach Liz Swindle due to illness.
“Every team’s got to have that next man up mentality and I think we did a nice job,” Boiler assistant Gary Hyde, who filled in for Swindle Wednesday, said. “Mal Ninis came in and did a nice job getting a couple rebounds and playing some nice defense.
“We didn’t miss a beat.”
It was defense that got the Boilers off to their early start, as they held the Kays to just six first-half points on a 2-for-13 effort from the field in the first half and forced 14 Kankakee turnovers in that stretch.
While the Kays did find better rhythm in the second half, where they outscored the Boilers 27-23, it was that dominant defensive effort early that paid dividends down the stretch.
“A coach can only hope to give up six points to a team like that in the first half,” Hyde said. “I wasn’t so pleased giving up 27 points in the second half, but Kankakee did some nice things and we had to adjust.
“Our [1-2-2] zone served us well — we like the number of tips we get, we didn’t let them get the ball inside as much as they would have liked and that was to our benefit.”
Offensively, a concerted effort early on to get the ball inside created room on the perimeter for junior guard Sadie Grabow to score a game-high 16 points, including a 3-for-6 night from downtown. Grabow shared the backcourt with her sister, senior point guard Skylar Grabow, who added a pair of triples herself and totaled nine points of her own.
After Skylar missed last season due to injury, nights like Wednesday where the two sisters are able to play together aren’t something Sadie takes for granted.
“Last year we didn’t get to play together so it’s been good to have a fresh start and play together again like old times,” Sadie Grabow said.
For the Kays, coach Kurt Weigt hopes that Wednesday can help serve as a learning experience for his young team that features just two players from last year’s varsity rotation in Nikkel Johnson and Taleah Turner.
“Credit to Bradley-Bourbonnais, they were fantastic tonight, but we’ve got some work to do to get this club where we want to be and we will,” Weigt said. “I love this group and one of the cool parts of coaching is watching that development.
“We hope by January to be a team that’s healthy and improved and hopefully make a run at this thing.”
While Swindle wasn’t able to be on the sidelines Wednesday, she didn’t miss a second of the action, as she cheered her team on from home.
“It was definitely a different experience watching from my bed at home rather than being with the girls on the court, but I saw the same effort that we have seen all tournament,” Swindle told the Daily Journal. “Our girls were flying around on defense, getting on the floor for loose balls and battled through what seemed to be a physical game.
“All around it was a great team win and I couldn’t be any more proud of how they played,” she added. “And shoutout to my amazing assistant coaches [Hyde and Mark Russell] who have done a great job the last two days as I’ve been sick. I couldn’t coach with a better group of guys.”
While the Boilers will now get a chance for a full All-City experience when they take on Bishop McNamara later this season, Wednesday was the only tase of All-City basketball the Kays will have this season on the girls side, and there will be no All-City games between the three schools on the boys side.
As someone who has experienced the All-City rivalry as boys and girls coach, administrator and a parent of Mac players Kiley and Taylor and a parent of a Boilermaker in daugther Kennedy — who is now one of his assistant coaches with the Kays — before coming to Kankakee, Weigt is as familiar with anyone with All-City basketball. He also hopes as much as anyone that the All-City rivalry will eventually make its proper return.
“I’d love to see All-City come back but that’s beyond me,” Weigt said. “We’ve tried for a few years to get it back, begging Bradley and Bishop Mac to play us, but we haven’t been able to get it done.
“Hopefully we can some day because it’s disappointing for our community, fanbase and kids,” he added. “They’re the ones getting robbed of experiences that were some of the best I had when I was coaching across town.”
TF North tops Beecher for ninth
The host Bobcats were also in action Wednesday, falling 45-34 to TF North in the ninth-place game. Aylin Lagunas led Beecher with eight points while Sydney Bonham had seven points. Kendall Kasput and Samantha Wilson had six points apiece. Trinity Bonham scored five points.