Who woulda thunk it?
Wheeling's girls basketball team was 1-14 and seeded 14th in a 19-team regional. Season over, right? Wrong. Coach Julissa Hernandez' Wildcats have advanced to Monday's Class 4A supersectional round and have become the first team in state history to qualify for the Elite Eight with a losing record.
In fact, the Wildcats need three victories to finish 18-18--and win the state championship.
Who woulda thunk it?
"Everybody asks how we turned it around but we didn't change anything," Hernandez said. "We've been doing the same things from day one. I just think the girls got tired of losing. They said to themselves: 'We can be in control.' We weren't in control in the first part of the season.
"The biggest difference from the first half was we had to get past turnovers. We had to realize that we would make mistakes on defense. But don't harp on it. As coaches and players, we didn't dwell on mistakes. We looked at positives. Now they are having fun. It is hard to have fun when you are losing. But there is nothing but smiles on their faces now."
As the 14th seed, Wheeling had to play into the regional. After losing their last regular-season game to Palatine 36-23, the Wildcats have gone on a tear, eliminating Round Lake 50-14, Libertyville 56-51, Prospect 58-32, Warren 41-26 and Zion-Benton 50-45 in Thursday's sectional final. They will carry a 15-18 record into Monday's supersectional against Loyola (25-7) at Stevenson.
"Honestly, I'm not surprised," Hernandez said. "We played well in the summer. It gave us some confidence. Our goals were to win conference, regional and sectional. We fell short in conference (third). But those were our goals in the preseason. We felt they were possible. We always knew it doesn't matter how we started, just how we finished.
"These kids didn't quit. When we were 1-14, they stuck with it. It was rough, not easy. But everybody still came to practice ready to work hard. We lost two games in overtime and 10 by 10 points or less. We felt we were better than our record."
They experienced losing last year, too. In Hernandez' first season, Wheeling was 4-26. "We fell short in a lot of games but it wasn't frustrating or disappointing. It was just a learning experience for all of us, coaches and girls," Hernandez said.
Now they are putting it all together. The senior leaders are Kellie Kuzmanic (12 ppg) and Leah Malsom (8.2 ppg). The other starters are Kellie's sister, freshman point guard Deanna Kuzmanic (10 ppg, 4 assists), junior Jessi Zuba (4 ppg) and freshman Hailey Dammeier (4.5 ppg). Freshman Hannah Dobrowski (3.5 ppg) comes off the bench.
Kellie Kuzmanic had 14 points and 13 rebounds in Thursday's victory over Zion-Benton. Deanna Kuzmanic scored 20 points and Malsom had seven points and four rebounds. Afterward, Zion-Benton coach Tanya Johnson, who produced state championship teams at Loyola Academy in 1997 and 1998, described Wheeling as a team of destiny.
Winning may be new to some of these girls but it isn't new to Hernandez or the Wheeling program. A graduate of Lake Park in 2003, Hernandez played on a team that lost to Candace Parker and Naperville Central in the supersectional. After graduating from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Hernandez joined Wheeling coach Shelly Weigel's staff.
From 2003 to 2010, Weigel was one of the most successful coaches in the state. After starting 11-16, she lost only 28 games in the next six years and won 25, 28, 23, 28, 33 and 26 games. Her 2009 team finished third in the state tournament. She won 80 percent (174-44) of her games in seven years.
While Weigel was more offense-minded, the 26-year-old Hernandez emphasizes defense. But one drill she picked up from her mentor, called the seven passes drill, proved to be a difference-maker in last Thursday's victory. Desperately trying to protect a slim lead in the last two minutes, Hernandez called for the strategy when Zion-Benton switched to a 1-2-1-1 trapping half-court defense.
"You have to pass the ball seven times before you try to score," Hernandez said. "You pass to a teammate and she must pass to another teammate. You can't pass it back to the person who threw the ball to you. And you are allowed only one dribble.
"We needed to keep the ball in our possession. We needed to find other people to pass, to avoid double-teamming. It involves a lot of teamwork and communication to make it work. Our girls stayed calm and handled the pressure and got open for passes."
So Wheeling is on its way to the Elite Eight. "Our fans have been with us all year. The parents didn't give up. It's nice to see the great support we have at Wheeling," Hernandez said.
Now everybody has smiles on their faces.