About 15 months later, Bailey Oetting feels right at home as a senior at Sterling High School. Over the next 10 days, she and her teammates must defend Musgrove Fieldhouse as if it's where they lay their heads at night.
Invading the home of the Golden Warriors for the Sterling Shootout this weekend and next Saturday are five perennial girls basketball powerhouses. There's four usual suspects in three-time defending 3A champion Montini, Richwoods, Moline and Hononegah.
The fifth visitor has been something of a revolving door over the past couple of years. This year, suburban juggernaut Fremd enters the fray.
Oetting, who transferred from Newman to Sterling before her junior year, got her first taste of the annual slugfest last December.
"It was definitely eye-opening seeing teams from all over the state that are really good," Oetting said. "It was definitely a new experience for me, and you definitely have to step up your game and play 10 times harder."
But Oetting also recognizes that the Warriors must put the onus on running their system and leaving it all on the floor, rather than focusing on what their high-caliber visitors can do.
"We just need to focus on our game and play how we know," "We should be able to do fine against these teams, but it will be a challenge, especially with their size."
The Warriors' early season resume is quite similar to a year ago, when they were 7-2 and coming off a nail-biting victory over Ottawa. The cuticles were equally endangered this past Tuesday, when Sterling (6-3, 3-0 Northern Illinois Big 12 West) edged the Pirates 55-52 at Musgrove.
"That was a very big win for this group," Sterling coach Julie Schroeder said, "and Bailey had a few moves in that game that were very impressive."
The Golden Warriors went 0-5 in last year's shootout. Shortly thereafter, they lost their top scorer, Aleena Hammelman, to a broken leg. But they stayed the course despite her absence and, upon her return, took Belvidere North down to the wire in a 41-40 Class 3A sectional semifinal loss.
So for Schroeder, wins in the round-robin shootout are secondary to how her team competes.
"This tournament for us is really all about being a competitor," Schroeder said. "It's not necessarily about wins and losses, because not a lot of teams in the state are going to beat the teams that are here."
Schroeder was a three-sport collegiate athlete and finds herself wishing she could inject her players with her competitive edge, especially considering that 2012 graduates Paige Lobdell, Hammelman and Ashli King were more than willing to get on the floor and stick their noses in tough spots.
"They were diving on the floor for every ball," Schroeder said. "I wish we had more of that this year. We've only got a couple of players who really get after it like that.
"Teams do personify their coaches a little bit, and I hope to rub off that competitiveness on our kids."
Oetting takes pride in providing a competitive edge.
"Filling in [the graduates'] shoes is really difficult, but I try to hustle and be as physical as I can," Oetting said. "When I'm being physical and getting box-outs, it helps me out, and makes me feel good to know I'm helping the team out."
Schroeder embraces her responsibility to make sure her team's brush with greatness in the shootout does not prove demoralizing.
"I think that's my job as a coach to not allow that to happen," Schroeder said. "As silly as it sounds you think, 'If we can steal one game, will we be satisfied?' If we win two games, we'd certainly be satisfied."
She hopes to see many smiling faces in the crowd more than satisfied with the action. After all, it's not often you get to see the veritable who's who of girls hoops around the state.
"It frustrates us as a coaching staff here at Sterling to know that we have that kind of caliber of players and teams here, and that it doesn't get watched the way we feel like it could," Schroeder said. "Girls basketball has come a long way in the state of Illinois."
SVM scouts 2012 Sterling Shootout
Fremd (7-2, 1-1 Mid-Suburban West)
Sterling matchup: 7:45 tonight
Coach: David Yates
Players to watch: Haley Gorecki 6-0 so. G; Ashley McConnell 5-9 sr. G
Notes: Vikings have rich tradition at guard, and Gorecki and McConnell were both all-state guards last season. … Chicago Tribune ranked both guard in their top 50 players in the area before this season. McConnell is reigning conference player of the year and has scored more than 1,000 points in her prep career… Gorecki, who has eclipsed 20 points in multiple games this season, has missed action recently with a sprained ankle. … A top seed in 4A last season, Fremd was upset in a regional final by Zion-Benton.
Schroeder's outlook: "I have seen some tape on them from last year. They return two all-state guards, and we need to guard them, plain and simple. They score a lot of points and do a lot of good things."
Montini (10-0, 4-0 Suburban Christian Conference Blue)
Sterling matchup: 10 a.m. Saturday
Coach: Jason Nichols (9th season, 239-40 [per ihsa.org])
Players to watch: Malayna Johnson 6-4 sr. P; Kelly Karlis jr. G; Kateri Stone jr. G
Notes: Broncos are three-time defending 3A champs. … Despite four players transferring, Broncos opened season No. 1 in Class 3A AP poll. … Johnson, whose sister plays at UConn, will attend the University of Wisconsin. … While they've allowed just two points in first quarter of last three conference games, Broncos have also shown vulnerability of late, escaping Geneva 58-55 last Saturday and Walther Lutheran 41-37 on Tuesday. … game against Walther triggered stretch of 10 games in 19 days.
Schroeder's outlook: "Clearly, we've got our work cut out for us. There's a decent family line with the Johnsons, and they've got some tremendous guards back from last year, as well."
Richwoods Knights (9-1, 2-1 Mid-State 6)
Sterling matchup: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Coach: Heather Cassady (1st year)
Players to watch: Olivia Elger, 5-7 so. PG (16.6 ppg, 2.4 apg, 3.2 rpg, 2.1 spg); Brenna Detra, 5-8 sr. G (12. 6 ppg, 3.3 apg, 4.4 rpg, 3.0 spg)
Notes: Elger transferred this past summer from Peoria Notre Dame – to whom the Knights lost 62-58 Tuesday. … Detra, whose aunt is a Prophetstown native and a close friend of Coach Schroeder's, is the two-time defending 3A state champion in the 300 hurdles and will attend the University of Wisconsin on a full ride.
Schroeder's outlook: "Losing to Notre Dame was a huge loss for them, because I feel Elger makes them a lot better. Detra gave us all kinds of matchup problems last year."
Moline (4-8, 2-3 Western Big 6)
Sterling matchup: 10 a.m. Dec. 22
Coach: Steve Ford (14th season, 297-126)
Players to watch: Morgan Gerard, 5-8 sr. F ( 10.7 ppg, 18 3s); Jordan de los Reyes, 5-8 sr. G (7.9 ppg)
Notes: The Maroons, having reached – and lost – five straight 4A sectional title games, are a bit down this season and lack a go-to scorer. … de los Reyes is committed to play softball at Illinois State. … Warmed up for the shootout with a 55-47 loss to 10-0 Rock Island on Thursday.
Schroeder's outlook: "Moline is Moline. They make it to the Sweet 16 every year. If they don't win the Western Big 6, they're in second almost every year."
Hononegah Indians (9-1, 5-0 NIC-10)
Sterling matchup: 4:15 p.m. Dec. 22
Coach: Randy Weibel (14th season, 322-102)
Players to watch: Karley Kolberg, 5-10 jr. P; Hannah Rehfeldt 5-5 sr. G
Notes: Only loss on season was 51-29 to 10-1 Palatine on Nov. 17 in Rockton … Rehfeldt hit four 3-pointers in first period of 59-31 victory over Freeport on Tuesday. … Indians are 39-0 in NIC-10 since 2010 and have won three straight conference titles. … They live and die by the 3-point shot. … Lost 4A sectional semifinal 53-50 to DeKalb this past February.
Schroeder's outlook: "They're kind of known for their 3-point arsenal, so that's a tough matchup for anybody."