By GREG MENGELT
Since losing to Paoli in last year’s Class 2A sectional championship game, Eastern’s girls’ basketball team had a singular goal in mind for the 2013-14 season.
The Musketeers accomplished it when they avenged two straight sectional championship game losses to the Rams to win their first sectional crown since 1996 last Saturday in Pekin.
Just because Eastern carried out its objective of earning a sectional championship doesn’t mean it is done dreaming.
The Musketeers will enter their first regional in 18 years on Saturday when they face North Posey (18-7) at 10:30 a.m. in the semifinals of the Class 2A Paoli Regional.
Eastern coach Mike McBride said the sectional victory has reinvigorated his team.
“The girls have really competed in practice,” the Musketeers’ seventh-year coach said. “It’s been highly competitive. They’re re-energized realizing what we’ve accomplished. That’s motivation enough.”
Beating Paoli was one thing. North Posey may be an even bigger challenge. The Vikings enter the regional on a 12-game winning streak after capturing their first sectional title since 2009.
“They’re a pretty good team. We’ll have to play well to be able to beat them,” Musketeers’ junior guard Rebekah Feist said.
“They’re senior-laden and very fundamentally sound,” McBride said of the Vikings. “They’re not going to be themselves. They don’t do anything outstanding. They just do a lot of things really good. We have to play a complete game to beat them, but I think we match up with them pretty well. I imagine it will come down to a couple of possessions at the very end.”
Senior point guard Katie Ernstberger said the Musketeers will be less concerned with what North Posey has than they will be with how they play.
“We’re just going to compete,” Ernstberger said. “We have to worry about ourselves — limit turnovers, play our game — I think we’ll be OK.”
“We have a lot of things to prepare for, but we’re excited about the challenge,” McBride said. “[The regional] is somewhat wide open, but North Posey’s probably the favorite from the standpoint of record and ratings.”
Of course, in order to win the regional, the Musketeers will have to win two games on Saturday. With a win over North Posey, they will face either North Knox (17-5) or Mid-Southern Conference rival Austin (12-11) in the championship game.
“We want to win it all, but we have to focus on the first game first,” Eastern junior forward Kaitlyn Stewart said.
“We’re going to take it just one game at a time, focus on winning one game at a time,” Feist said. “We know the teams that we could play. [The regional has] a bunch of good teams, but we’re just worried about the first one.”
The Musketeers don’t believe their lack of regional experience will hinder them on Saturday.
“We want to focus on it as just another basketball game. You don’t want to freak out about it,” Stewart said. “But, I mean, it’s kind of big.”
“Obviously there are going to be nerves because it’s a new experience,” McBride said. “Yeah, we’re going to have to fight through the nerves, but I think everyone is just because of the environment.”
The players said the town and the school have been buzzing about their sectional victory. There will be a community-wide pep rally for the team today and a fan bus will travel to support the Musketeers on Saturday.
“There’s a lot of support,” Ernstberger said. “The community’s supporting us and we’re ready to perform for them.”
“It’s been exciting at school this week,” Feist said. “A bunch of people have been congratulating us.”
McBride said that his Musketeers have earned the accolades they’ve gotten over the past few days.
“It’s been great, the amount of excitement and enthusiasm surrounding winning sectional has been really good,” he said. “It’s been a nice reward for them.”