By Sam Zuba-
(CBS) From an outsider’s perspective, the upcoming season looked bleak for the Stillman Valley High School girl’s basketball team.
Ranked fifth out of the seven teams in the Big Northern Conference West division, outside expectations were low, to say the least. But what does an outsider’s opinion mean, anyway? The Cardinals are proving it doesn’t mean much.
As they prepare to take on Breese Central High School in the Class 2-A State Semifinals on Friday night, Stillman Valley is silencing critics one at a time.
“(The low ranking) was a huge motivation for the girls,” fifth-year head coach Heather Alderks said. “Last year, we were shaken up in our regional championship, and that was a huge motivation as well for these girls. We just talked a lot about how it doesn’t matter what the outside people think. It only matters what the people on the inside of this team think. We’re going to prove people wrong. These girls have just taken that attitude and ran with it.”
Instead of sulking in their fifth seed, the team decided to take the exact opposite approach — something that is paying great dividends now.
“We didn’t think we deserved that,” senior guard Samantha Hellyer said. “We were in the regional championship the year before and we had a bunch of returning starters. It hurt, definitely, but it gave us the motivation to come back and play as hard.”
The road hasn’t been easy, but the Cardinals have taken on the heavy task of shocking the Big Northern Conference en route to their 26-6 record.
Stillman Valley’s postseason run almost came crashing down when they trailed divisional foe Oregon 26-5 in the first half of the regional championship game. Still, the Cardinals weren’t going down without a fight.
Behind 22 points and 10 rebounds from team captain Jessica Gerig, they overcame the 19-point deficit to take down the Hawks, 50-36, advancing to the sectional championship.
“We kept our cool the entire time,” the All-State Gerig said. “I never felt like there was a panic or a nervousness that we weren’t able to overcome. We were able to lockdown our defense and take over the game.”
Alderks said it’s been the confidence steaming from that game that has propelled her team to the state semifinals.
“We just went in the locker room and were like, ‘We believe we can come back in this game. We believe that our defense can shut people down and our offense can score points,'” she said. “These girls fought and fought and fought and really got it done on the defensive end.
“I think the confidence of going down by 19 and being able to win by 14 has really carried us through these games.”
The thought of a fifth-ranked team making the final four in the state may sound like an accomplishment to some, but the Cardinals aren’t satisfied with their achievements just yet.
“We are on a mission,” Alderks said. “We’ve already made history. We’re already guaranteed fourth place, and that’s the highest that a team from Stillman Valley has ever been, but that’s not good enough. We want to go in and represent ourselves the best we can.”
Sam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com. Before earning a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, he spent two summers cover the Kansas City Royals and the Chicago Cubs for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @SamZuba and read more of his columns here.