It's not easy to think about "next year" when "this year" became history only minutes earlier.
But the Bartlett girls basketball players had good reason to focus on the silver lining after their 70-57 loss to Fenwick in the Class 4A Lake Park sectional title game in Roselle Thursday.
Young Bartlett (21-10), the sixth seed in the Lake Park sectional, gave No. 1 Fenwick (30-3) legitimate cause for concern throughout a tight game. The Hawks stayed within 2 points of the Friars through a half and trailed 51-47 after three quarters.
After junior Jacki Gulczynski, Bartlett's leader physically and emotionally, hit her second straight basket with 6:33 to play, the Hawks had pulled within 2 points of the state's No. 7-ranked team.
"We knew they were the favored team, but we wanted to come out and play with a lot of emotion and a lot of heart, and we did," said Gulczynski, who outscored Duke-bound Fenwick star Tricia Liston 23-20. "We were in the game until the last few minutes. I couldn't be prouder of the girls. They played their hearts out tonight."
Most of them will get the chance to play their hearts out for Bartlett again next season. The Hawks' only graduating senior is tri-captain Nicolette Gutzwiller, who came off the bench against Fenwick. Knowing they can trade metaphorical punches with a program that won its eighth sectional title on Thursday will only stoke the fire to come back stronger next year.
"These losses are hard, but I do say they are also motivating for the kids coming back," Bartlett coach Denise Sarna said. "It showed them how close they were and how good they are. On those summer days when you don't feel like getting up and going to the gym, this will certainly be motivating. Hopefully, they got a little taste of it, liked it and work hard in order to get back.
"It hurts now, but it's motivating to all of us."
Bartlett has a bona fide cornerstone in Gulczynski, who hit several big baskets against Fenwick on 8-of-13 shooting.
"Jacki had a great game," Fenwick coach Dave Power said. "Bartlett's a great team. And young. We respected them very much because they have height, they trap hard and they really do a good job of D-ing it up. We had a great effort to counteract them and get enough points on the board to beat them, but we had no answer for some of their players."
The other four starters for Bartlett all turned in solid performances. Sophomore Kristin Conniff scored 15 points and grabbed 5 rebounds. Sophomore forward Haley Videckis scored 11 points. Sophomore point guard Janessa Baker was a catalyst with 4 steals and 8 points. And junior Christina Carlson was a key part of a defense that denied Liston the ball enough times to hold the 6-2 star to 9 points below her season average of 29.
Sophomore reserves Katie Gutzwiller and Lisa Palmer and junior Nicole Beck all saw action in Thursday's sectional title game and provide Bartlett depth heading into next season.
"I think we all learned a lot," Conniff said of making the program's first sectional title-game appearance since 2005. "(Fenwick) was well-rounded and has good players. We learned a good lesson in this game and it will help us in the long run. We should benefit from this game.
We believed in each other and we fought to the end."
Sarna said this is a "great group of kids," motivated, hardworking and committed. She said the camaraderie of this team was second to none in her coaching career. The girls knew their roles and worked dilligently to fill them.
What can mostly the same group do with another year of seasoning?
"If we can compete with Fenwick into the fourth quarter, next year we can go all the way," Videckis said.
If so, "next year" indeed could be pretty interesting for the rising Bartlett Hawks.