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The ultimate goal of winning a state championship for all high school girls basketball teams in February has settled into a pretty normal routine.
— Playing at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University.
— Having their school send fan buses and hold pep rallies.
— Posing for team photos with regional championship, sectional championship and super-sectional championship plaques.
But before Rantoul Township High School, Fisher or Armstrong-Potomac can think about making a trip to Normal, the site of the state finals, they all start the postseason at the local level.
For RTHS and A-P, that means their own gym. Each school will host a regional. The Eagles have gone 1-7 at home this year. A-P is nearly the exact opposite (8-1) at Robert L. Bezely Gymnasium.
Fisher will make the short drive down U.S. 136 to Farmer City where Blue Ridge will welcome in five teams for regional play. Here’s a look at the where the postseason will start for our three coverage teams.
Centennial main threat
If the Eagles are to win their first regional of the 21st century, they’ll have to beat a loaded and talented Champaign Centennial squad that is ranked among the best Class 3A teams in the state.
The Chargers are the only school in the five-team regional RTHS has not played this season, but Centennial did end the Eagles’ postseason last year, beating RTHS 61-39 in a 3A regional semifinal game at Champaign Central’s Combes Gymnasium.
“It will help knowing that we played them last year in the same situation,” RTHS head coach Jeff McKaufsky said. “They had the same team. We pretty much have the same team. We played them hard at Central for three quarters, but against them, you can’t take any time off. You’ve got to play a full game.”
Before RTHS (7-19) can worry about Centennial, it needs to handle Urbana.
For the third time this season.
The Eagles beat the Tigers 41-35 in their season opener on Nov. 15 during the Blue Star Country Classic at St. Thomas More and 51-43 on Dec. 29 during the seventh-place game at the Charleston Holiday Tournament.
The fourth-seeded Eagles will meet No. 5 Urbana at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 11, in a regional quarterfinal game at RTHS.
The winner gets the luxury of playing top seed Centennial at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at RTHS, with the second regional semifinal game between No. 2 Champaign Central and No. 3 Mahomet-Seymour slated to start at 8 p.m. on Feb. 12 at RTHS.
The winners of the two regional semifinal games will meet at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, at RTHS in the regional championship game and a berth in a 6 p.m. sectional semifinal game at Mt. Zion on Monday, Feb. 18.
This is the second time in three years RTHS has hosted a regional after it did so in 2011 for a 2A regional. But the program hasn’t won a regional championship since 1998 and last played in a regional championship game in 2001.
“Nobody expects Rantoul to do anything against the Champaign schools and Mahomet,” McKaufsky said. “We’re not going to have any pressure on us going into it.”
Bunnies right on track
In a 1A regional with no one dominant team, Fisher stood out above the rest.
Fisher head coach Ken Ingold can send out thank-you cards to fellow Heart of Illinois Conference schools.
The strength of the 13-team league, combined with Fisher’s 15-13 record, most certainly contributed in Fisher landing the top seed ahead of No. 2 Heritage, No. 3 Blue Ridge, No. 4 Judah Christian and No. 5 Urbana University High.
“There aren’t any teams with great records in there, and I think the schedule we play benefitted us,” Ingold said. “We play a couple 3A schools and a lot of 2A schools. The coaches who voted for us gave us the benefit of the doubt on that.”
Fisher will play the winner of the Judah Christian-Urbana Uni High game at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6, in a regional semifinal game. Judah and Uni High tip at 7:30 p.m. next Monday.
Fisher beat Uni High 47-33 on Jan. 5 in Urbana while the Bunnies have not played Judah Christian this year. The Bunnies also own a 55-34 home win on Dec. 6 against Blue Ridge but have not played Heritage. Heritage and Blue Ridge play at 8 p.m. on Feb. 6 in the second regional semifinal game.
The regional championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7, making for a quick turnaround if Fisher is able to make its second straight regional championship game appearance.
“My concern is we’ll have a nine-day layoff until we play that first game,” Ingold said before Fisher ended the regular season on Monday with a 52-46 home win against Heyworth. “We’ll have to really get after it in practice this week and the beginning of next week to create some game-type situations in practice just to stay sharp.”
The motivation is there for Fisher to stay sharp. The Bunnies are the sectional hosts, and a win on Feb. 7 would send them into a 6 p.m. sectional semifinal game on Feb. 11 on their home court.
“We definitely set it as a goal,” Ingold said. “It’d be wonderful to play a sectional game or two on our home court. We have a lot of work to do before we can get that done, but we started talking about a month ago that a regional championship would be what we wanted to set our sights on.”
Trojans in balanced field
A-P (16-9) will open up the postseason as the top seed against either No. 4 Milford or No. 5 Salt Fork at 6 p.m. next Tuesday in a regional semifinal game on its home court.
“I really wasn’t expecting to get the No. 1 seed, so that was a nice surprise,” A-P head coach Nick Hipsher said. “I’m not sure it’s so much pressure. We’re not looking at it that way, but it is nice to get the bye. We’ve only got 10 bodies this year, so the less games we have to put our bodies through, the better.”
Milford and Salt Fork meet at 6 p.m. next Monday in a regional quarterfinal, with No. 3 Danville Schlarman taking on No. 6 Buckley Christ Lutheran in another regional quarterfinal game next Monday at 8 p.m.
Cissna Park, the second seed, will await the winner of the Schlarman-Buckley Christ Lutheran game at 8 p.m. next Tuesday in the second regional semifinal game.
The regional championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 7, with the winner advancing to play in an 8 p.m. sectional semifinal game at Fisher on Feb. 11.
A-P hasn’t hosted a regional since 2000 and hasn’t won one since 2004, but has played in regional championship games the last two years.
A clear-cut favorite doesn’t exist. The Trojans have lost 39-29 at Cissna Park on Nov. 17, split two games with Schlarman (a 55-44 home win on Dec. 11 and a 59-28 blowout loss at Schlarman’s Shebby Gymnasium on Jan. 21), split both their games against Milford (a 38-36 loss in Milford on Dec. 3 and a 46-25 win in Armstrong on Jan. 10) and beaten Salt Fork twice (46-38 at home on Dec. 10 and 42-22 on Jan. 16 during the Vermilion County Tournament in Danville). A-P has not played Buckley Christ Lutheran this season.
“There’s quite a few good teams in our regional,” Hipsher said. “It’s going to be very competitive, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy for anybody.”