NORMAL, Ill. — Walking to the tunnel following Saturday's Class 3A state title game, Montini coach Jason Nichols smiled and playfully nudged senior Kateri Stone.
The Broncos defeated Joliet Catholic 57-44 to win their fourth girls basketball state title in five years. After watching his team drill 11 3-pointers — one short of the school record — Nichols was all smiles.
"It took five months for that smile, and we finally got one," Stone said, laughing.
Montini's senior group of Stone, Kelly Karlis and Sara Ross won three state championships and earned a third-place medal last season. Overall, the Broncos won at least 33 games every year and posted a 138-10 mark in the last four seasons. Stone will play at Colagte next year, with Karlis moving on to Ohio and Ross heading to IUPUI.
"I think as individuals, the three seniors made improvements in every aspect of our game, and we're proud of that," Karlis said. "We can smile back at all the wins and losses and ups and downs with Coach and our teammates."
The hard-driving Nichols admitted having a soft spot for this senior group. The Broncos will move up to Class 4A next season due to the Illinois High School Association's new success advancement clause, and Nichols expects Montini to handle the transition well. The Broncos annually play a tough schedule. They beat two of the 4A semifinalists — Marian Catholic and Rolling Meadows — and lost to 4A champion Young.
"My sadness comes with the seniors and how loyal they were to me," Nichols said. "The run they had here with three firsts and a third and 30-some wins each year is incredible and unbelievable four-year run. We beat some good teams. We played great teams regardless of class, so I think we'll be able to handle it."
The Broncos won their final 11 games to finish with a 34-2 record. Montini gutted out a hard-fought, 34-26 win over Burlington Central in Friday's semifinals.
Against Joliet Catholic, Karlis made four 3-pointers for a team-high 16 points. Lea Kerstein (13 points) made two of her 3s on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions and Stone (12 points) added three 3s of her own.
"We kind of knew not hitting shots (Friday) that they would go (Saturday)," Karlis said. "We came out really focused and really wanted this one and I think that's why we hit our shots. The (Friday) game made us nervous because we didn't want to give up and go through the pain of getting the second-, third- or fourth-place medals."