Though Coal City and Seneca have lost a combined three games in the Interstate Eight Conference, neither cracked the top two in seeding for the conference tournament.
Both teams did receive first-round byes for the tournament, which begins Thursday. The Lady Coalers, who will take an overall record of 15-3 and an I-8 mark of 6-1 into the event, are seeded third. The defending champion Lady Irish are the No. 4 seed despite a 10-11 overall record. Seneca is 6-2 in conference play.
Seneca enters the tournament off of a loss, but it was not necessarily a discouraging one. On Monday, the Lady Irish fell 44-41 to Lisle, which is the top seed in the tournament and is 8-0 in conference play.
"Monday definitely showed if they're the No. 1 seed, while we have to bring our 'A' game every night, we can play with anyone," Seneca coach Barb Beck said. "Just like any type of tournament, whoever is playing well at the time can win. If you can string some games together, you may be able to pull it out."
This year's edition of the Lady Irish is significantly different from the one that won the 2012 tournament. Guard Chelsie McCormick has emerged as Seneca's leading scorer at 6.9 points per game, largely because she mas made 43 free throws (in 74 attempts). McCormick also leads the Lady Irish in assists with 45. Junior forward Danielle Hauch is second on the team with a 6.4 points per game average.
"It's a hard-working group of girls," Beck said. "The decision-making at times has not been the best or where it needs to be. Against quality teams, one or two bad decisions can be the difference."
Seneca has actually lost to conference opponents three times. It began its season with a non-conference tournament game against Plano at Somonauk and lost 46-42. The Lady Irish saw Plano, which is the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, again on Dec. 3 and lost 40-34 before falling to Lisle this week.
"I definitely feel like it can be," Beck said when asked if the Lady Irish can be the team that wins the tournament. "We've played pretty sporadic at times, but the last five games we've started to come around. If we can put four (quarters) together, we have a shot."
Coal City's lone conference loss was to Plano on Dec. 6, 45-42, though the Lady Coalers have not yet faced Seneca or Lisle. They have lost one game in each of the tournaments they have played to date — to Tinley Park at Beecher, 56-43, and to Walther Lutheran at Lisle, 48-35 — but have been perfect otherwise.
"So far, I feel we have played very well," Coal City coach Brad Schmitt said. "We've had a lot more balance than I thought we were going to have, and that's been a key component. That takes away from the other team being able to focus on one or two players. And defensively I feel we have exceeded our expectations. We've been holding people down for the most part."
Emily Halliday's 14.6 points per game comfortably leads the team, but three of her teammates — Donjeta Shabani, Nicole Borgetti and Britta Spelde — have already exceeded 100 points on the season. Shabani is second on the team at 9.3 points per game, with Borgetti right behind at 9.2 and Spelde at 6.3.
Borgetti is 45-for-126 on three-pointers this season. Other than Halliday, who has made 21-of-53 attempts from three-point land, nobody else on the team has made more than two three-pointers all season.
"The addition of Nicole Borgetti as a sophomore who can score from the outside has taken a lot of pressure off of the other girls. It's allowed us to be more of an inside-outside team," Schmitt said. "Donjeta and Britta have really stepped up. Britta may not be scoring as much as she would like, but she's contributing in terms of rebounding and assists and defense."
The Lady Coalers will face either Sandwich or Westmont in their first tournament game. They have not yet faced Westmont, but they defeated Sandwich 49-19 on Dec. 13.
"We were fourth last year. You always want to improve on that, and of course we want to get a championship, but there are a lot of good teams in our way," Schmitt said. "We're going to do the old cliche and focus on Saturday, try to get to Monday and take it from there."
Seneca has beaten one of its potential first opponents, Peotone, by a 41-36 final on Nov. 29 and has yet to play the other, Reed-Custer.
"We're the fourth seed in the conference tournament but we still have a chance to play (Lisle) again," Hauch said to the Herald on Monday. "It would be nice to win it because we won it last year and it would be nice to do it two years in a row."