One of the least-familiar teams in the area happens to be a consensus choice as one of the best in the state — Homewood-Flossmoor.
The Vikings, under the direction of former Bolingbrook coach Tony Smith, played just three of their first 11 games this season in the state of Illinois. They've played three games in a Murfreesboro, Tenn., tourney, three in the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix and two in a Cincinnati tournament.
Homewood-Flossmoor entered the season with high expectations and some controversy due to its six transfers, including former Bolingbrook player Amarah Coleman, an Illinois recruit, and former Plainfield East forward Faith Suggs.
Some believe talented teams minimize the importance of coaching, that coaches such as Montini's Jason Nichols, Rolling Meadows' Ryan Kirkorsky and Smith at H-F are winning mainly because of talent.
But most observers within the game understand getting talent to play as a team and putting individual goals aside is the true art of coaching. That's something in which Smith specializes.
"It's been a long haul, and a team effort," Smith said. "We're playing 14 kids. It takes time. It's been a whole team effort, not just one or two, but all 17 kids. Are we where we want to be? Probably not. This is a good start. We still have a long ways to go."
The Vikings have looked impressive so far. Homewood-Flossmoor crushed Hillcrest 91-38 on Nov. 21. Hillcrest coach John Maniatis is a coach who demands full-out effort from his players. The Vikings nearly tripled the Hawks' point total. Homewood-Flossmoor beat Lockport 99-37 on Dec. 7, and defeated Stagg 71-45 on Dec. 13. In their three in-state victories, the Vikings' average win margin is 47 points.
They lost by one point to the No.1 ranked team in the country — Mater Dei (Calif.) — in the espnW 25 Power Rankings, in the first game of the Nike Invite. Junior Katie Lou Samuelson, the No. 2 prospect in the espnW Super 50 in the junior class, scored 38 points to knock off the Vikings.
"It's tough going to (all these tournaments) because the kids are away from their families," Smith said. "Everybody gives up that time. I think the payoff is great. You get a chance to go up against other kids and get other colleges to see you play. People from all over country saw us, and people from different basketball circles.
"We weren't just playing against the same kids that they've played against since third or fourth grade. You see that kid that's the best player in the country from California. The kids see why they need to practice three or more hours a day. We've also seen (from our travels) that Illinois is one of the top states for girls basketball."
Numerous local coaches have mentioned that H-F, along with Young, are the top two teams in Class 4A. The good news is the Vikings play two games—- at Joliet West on Jan. 8 and home against Joliet Central on Jan. 10 — before their highly anticipated game at Bolingbrook on Jan. 14.
The Vikings took a different route than some other highly ranked teams. The Montini Christmas Tournament would've been a good barometer for the Vikings. Montini beat Fremd, Marian Catholic and Rolling Meadows in its last three games to win the title. Let's see if H-F's decision to play in high-profile, out-of-state tournaments was a better path to success.
"The team is showing the drive it takes to be successful, and I think they will be," Smith said.
Now that the bulk of the tourney season is behind us, the 24th Annual McDonald's Shootout, held at Willowbrook High School, is right around the corner. Looking at the games, St. Thomas More sophomore center Tori McCoy and Geneva freshman Grace Loberg should be an exciting matchup. Also, Burlington Central's band of youngsters against another team filled with mostly non-seniors, Fremd.
On the last day, Batavia senior guard Liza Freundt and Joliet Catholic sophomore guard Nicole Ekhomu should be one of the best duels in the three-day tourney. Bolingbrook first-year coach Chris Smith's squad faces off against Montini. Smith was an assistant coach on Montini's Class 3A state-title winning teams in 2010 and 2011.
Although Fenwick is down somewhat this season, the Friars and Rolling Meadows will be an up-and-down, point-filled game.
Here's the schedule.
Friday, Jan. 17
Warren vs. St. Ignatius, 6 p.m.