If every journey starts with a first step, then the Sterling girls basketball program is quite a ways along its trek thanks to some huge strides this season.
After a 4-year hiatus following 2007's run to the Elite Eight, the Golden girls are back to where they feel the tradition-rich program should be every year.
The Warriors have won two consecutive regional titles, and made it to the Sweet 16 this winter before seeing their postseason trip halted by Burlington Central, 49-26 in Thursday's Class 3A Genoa-Kingston Sectional final.
"This is an amazing feeling, and I'm so proud of what this team has put into this," senior forward Alexis Strong said. "All the hard work, the effort, it all means so much when we can make it this far."
Strong is one of seven seniors who stepped onto the court for the final time Thursday as Golden Warriors. While there were the inevitable tears for a few minutes following the game, there is absolutely no reason for Sterling's 12th-graders to hang their heads or feel sad about anything.
Twenty wins for the fourth time in 5 years? Check. Back-to-back conference titles? Check. Back-to-back regional crowns? Check. Taking one step further this year than last on the path toward Redbird Arena? Check.
"I'm not mad we lost," senior guard McKenna Pearson said. "We did a lot more than anybody expected us to this year, and I'm happy the underclassmen got this feeling of what it's like to have some postseason success. Now it's up to them to carry it on into the future."
"I'm excited to come back and see how well they play next year," Strong added. "It'll be strange watching from that different point of view in the crowd, but it'll be fun to know that I played a part in helping them get better."
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has watched Sterling play this season that this strong group of senior leaders was still showing its leadership just minutes after their high-school careers were over.
After all, it was their leadership which helped the Warriors recover from the always-grueling Sterling Shootout in mid-December, then bounce back from a couple of heart-wrenching losses at the Dixon tournament after Christmas.
Their strength of character and love for one another is probably the main reason why the Sterling student section was so eagerly calling for senior Ivy Peterson to enter the game midway through the fourth quarter … and why she and classmates Taylor Olsen and Priscilla Aponte received such raucous applause when they did step on the floor, then off of it, for the final time.
"It means so much to all of us what these seniors have done for us this year," sophomore point guard Gabby Sandoval said. "They taught us so much about playing as a team and having everyone on the same page and going after the same thing. They led us through everything this year, and without them it would have been a lot harder to get where we are."
Where they were around 7:45 p.m. Thursday was on the baseline at a gym in Genoa, sharing hugs with friends and family members … and each other. Where they were a short time later was on the bus ride home, no doubt breaking spells of contemplative silence with a smattering of chit-chat.
The seniors were probably already talking about fond memories from extremely memorable careers. The juniors and sophomores were likely taking it all in … and already discussing their plans to take the next step along the path next season.
"This was big for us tonight, just playing in this atmosphere and learning how fun it is to make it this far and how tough it is to lose when you get there," junior Raquel Romano said. "We're going to remember this, and remember all the seniors have done for us, and work as hard as they have to try and make them proud next year."