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Top-seeded Coalers head I-8 girls basketball tourney field

Only No. 1 seed Coal City will enter the 2014 Interstate Eight Conference girls basketball tournament, which begins today at Reed-Custer, without a conference loss.

Three teams – second-seeded Lisle, third-seeded Peotone and fourth-seeded Seneca – have one conference loss each.

Coal City is not just undefeated in conference play. The Coalers are 18-0 overall and have outscored their opponents 878-503 this season, but coach Brad Schmitt said their effort has been imperfect of late.

“We have to play well for four quarters. These past three games, I thought we played in spurts, but never really sustained that high level of play we are looking for,” Schmitt said. “I think our goal is to get everybody on the same page each game for the last 10 games of our regular season, and if we do that, we have a chance each night.”

If the tournament were seeded today, it is unlikely Seneca would be fourth and Lisle second. Monday night, after Friday’s online voting by I-8 coaches was complete, the Irish defeated previously unbeaten-in-conference-play Lisle, 42-28. It wasn’t a victory without a cost though, as forward Kayla Haines, their third-leading rebounder, went down with an injury.

“I’ve always told the ladies that seeds mean nothing. You have to go out and prove yourself on the court,” Seneca coach Barb Beck said. “Our staff has been pleased to see ... improvement each game as the season has progressed. With the injury to Kayla Monday, we have to step up as a team and each take charge of our roles as we compete the rest of the way.”

Coal City’s first game will be Saturday night against the winner of No. 8 Manteno vs. No. 9 Wilmington. With a win, the Coalers would advance to the semifinals Monday. Their semifinal opponent could be fourth-seeded Seneca, which will face either No. 5 Plano or No. 12 Sandwich in a quarterfinal game Saturday.

Getting to Monday unscathed is not something Schmitt is taking for granted, though the Lady Coalers defeated Manteno, 51-23, and Wilmington, 51-17, earlier. Defending Morris Daily Herald Player of the Year, Emily Halliday (12.8 points per game. 80 rebounds, 58 steals) and fellow senior Britta Spelde (10.8 PPG, 106 rebounds) have been the key to their success.

“I think we are looking at three tough games,” he said. “I still believe this is a dangerous conference, and if you are not mentally and physically prepared for each game, you are not going to like the end result. I have never believed in seeds because they don’t make any team any better than they were coming into the tournament. You have to take care of whoever that might be each night.”

Beck, too, said the focus is on the first opponent. Seneca has defeated Plano, 68-56, and Sandwich, 56-32, already in this season. Seneca is 17-3 overall behind the play of Danielle Hauch (10.8 PPG, 90 rebounds before Monday) and Mallory Misener (9.7 PPG, 45 steals)

“I’ve said it for a long time that every night is tough in the I-8 when you take the court. We have to focus on preparing for the Saturday game,” Beck said. “Offensively, we have to continue to show patience and create better looks for each other. Defensively, the communication has to keep improving so that things come a little easier for us.”

If Seneca advances to the semifinals, and Lisle advances to the finals, Coal City would be looking at back-to-back games against teams it has not yet seen standing between it and a championship.

“I like the fact that we all have not played each other. It gives this tournament a surprise element in my mind, and the team that plays the best that night will probably win,” Schmitt said. “We are just looking to play at a high level as we head into the end of our regular season.”

The chance to Coal City, difficult though it may be, is one the Lady Irish would welcome.

“Coal City is the the team to beat this season in the I-8,” Beck said. “We are looking forward to matching up with them.”

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