Rolling Meadows hopes to sizzle downstate
- Photos (1)
Rolling Meadows' Jenny Vliet, left, and Jackie Kemph embrace after topping Evanston in Monday's Niles West supersectional. The Mustangs face Huntley in a Class 4A state semifinal at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer
The room number for Ryan Kirkorsky's English classroom at Rolling Meadows High School begins with A1.
How appropriate is that?
Kirkorsky's basketball team has certainly had an A (No.) 1 season to this point.
And the Mustangs would like nothing better than to be at the top of the heap on Saturday night when the Class 4A state tournament is concluded at Illinois State's Redbird Arena in Normal.
But to even get to that title game, the Mustangs (29-3) must get past Huntley (26-6) in Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal.
The second semifinal matches Whitney Young (26-4) and Marian Catholic (31-1), whose only loss is to Rolling Meadows (61-55) at the Montini tournament.
Kirkorsky's Mustangs have already accomplished what no previous Meadows girls basketball team has done since the state tournament began at Illinois State's Horton Field House in 1977.
These Mustangs are the first to play in the state finals, guaranteeing them a state trophy.
In fact, the last time a Meadows team won state hardware in any sport was in 1995 when the girls cross country team placed fourth.
The only state titles in school history were in 1977 and 1980 by the girls archery team.
"This is what we have been playing for all season," said Mustangs junior Jackie Kemph, one of the most highly recruited players in school history. "We all wanted to do this. To get this far is pretty awesome."
The only Class 4A team that has defeated Meadows this season is Mid-Suburban champion Fremd, which won the West division with an 8-2 record.
Huntley played four teams in the MSL West this season.
It split with Conant (won 43-39 and lost 35-33), defeated Hoffman Estates (54-43) and Palatine (46-28) and lost to Barrington 39-33.
"We know Huntley has a lot of talent," said Kemph, an all-state guard and two-time MSL East Player of the Year. "They have good posts and play real good defense."
The best-known players for Huntley are the Andrews sisters — 6-foot-2 freshman Ali (16.1 ppg) and 6-0 junior Sam (16.0 ppg).
One of the two has been the Red Raiders' top scorer in all 32 games.
Mustangs junior Alexis Glasgow, a Northwestern recruit and all-state guard, plays on the same Midwest Elite team with the Andrews tandem.
"They're both really nice girls," said Glasgow, an all-state guard. "I'm definitely excited to see them again and compete against them in a state semifinal."
Kirkorsky has heard plenty of the sisters.
"Our first priority is slowing them down," he said. "They don't appear to be standard post players. They will post up but they also can hit 3-pointers, handle the ball and attack the basket.
"Their other kids are aggressive, too. Offensively, they share the basketball. They are fundamentally sound on defense and seem to be playing with a lot of confidence."
The Mustangs are a confident team as well.
They are coming off their top defensive effort of the season, holding Evanston to a season-low point total in a 54-31 victory at the Niles West supersectional.
Offensively, the Mustangs are led by Kemph (19.6 ppg), who has 245 assists this season with 95 rebounds. Glasgow (17.0 ppg), Jenny Vliet (10.0) and Ashley Montanez (6.8) are other top scorers while Sami Kay completes the all-junior starting lineup with 65 rebounds and 39 assists.
Vliet leads the team with 266 rebounds senior while Morgan Keller is next at 131.
Kemph's twin sister Allie has 69 rebounds and 42 assists.
Vliet's 53 assists are second on the team.
"We've had a really tough schedule," Vliet said. "And we've played big games in packed gyms. That has helped us stay composed and we know we can always help our teammates."
Helping hand: Rolling Meadows girls athletic director James Voyles has been a public presence at nearly all of the girls basketball games this season.
Even as the Mustangs prepared this week for their first trip to the state finals in school history, Voyles was right in the middle of things, trying to be as much help to coach Ryan Kirkorsky as possible.
That's why he put in a few phone calls to some old acquaintances.
As a three-sport athlete at Lincoln High School, Voyles got to know quite a few coaches.
One was Hall of Famer Neil Alexander, now in his 36th season at Lincoln with more than 650 victories, ranking him fourth among active coaches and 34th among all-time in Illinois.
"He's taken three boys teams to state and I wanted to know if there was anything he could tell me that I could pass on to Ryan," said Voyles, an All-American junior college track and field performer who went on to compete at Eastern Illinois. "One of the things he asked me was if the team liked to shoot that basketball."
Of course, little did Alexander know the Mustangs are one of best shooting teams the Mid-Suburban League has even seen, averaging nearly 70 points.
"So when I told him, he recommended that when we got to the 30-minute shootaround at Redbird Arena (host of the state final) on Thursday, that we should have the ball racks ready to go and just shoot, shoot shoot," Voyles said. "He said the atmosphere and shooting background is different and hard to get used to so you should just keep shooting at the baskets and getting familiar with the surroundings."
Voyles and his staff had to familiar themselves with a new coach when the season started.
But it couldn't have gone any smoother as Kirkorsky made the transition after serving the past four seasons as the Elk Grove head coach.
During the week, Kirkorsky received some congratulatory texts from former Grenadiers he coached who are now in college.
"I'm excited for Ryan," Voyles said. "On the outside, you would never realize the emotions he is going through. The girls seem him as such a nice guy. He's so impeccably calm and collected. He is a perfect fit for the girls with his demeanor."
And that has rubbed off on the Mustangs, who have shown that same calm in tense situations which is one of the many reasons they are one of the final four teams left in Class 4A.
"When last season ended, this is what we knew we wanted to do (getting downstate)," said Jackie Kemph, the Mid-Suburban League Player of the Year and all-state guard. "We knew we could do it even with a new coach and he's been awesome helping us get here."
Right at home: It didn't take long for Meadows junior Alexis Glasgow to warm up to the baskets at Redbird Arena.
One day after being named an Associated Press first team all-stater, Glasgow was one of four Class 4A qualifiers in the Three-Point Showdown.
Glasgow made 9 3-pointers, tying for second with Kendall Detweiler (Grayslake North) and Kamari Jordan (Bolingbrook).
Rachel Ruzevich of Sandburg was first with 11.
Assisting hand: With their success and talent, the Mustangs hardly have to worry about being psyched out by any opponent.
But it just so happens they have a school psychologist on their bench.
That is the assistant coach Nick Nichol's daytime job at Rolling Meadows.
Does it help using those skills in his job coaching basketball players?
"I'm sure some of the counseling skills are helpful in times of high stress and emotion," said Nichols, a graduate of Woodstock High School.
Nichols is an eight-year veteran in the program, now working under his third head coach, including Todd Hatfield, who guided the Mustangs to their first MSL championship in school history last season.
Language test: Current Meadows coach Ryan Kirkorsky isn't the first English teacher to coach the Mustangs in a Mid-Suburban League championship game (Mustangs loss in overtime 66-63 to Fremd on Feb. 6).
Former coach Mark Thorne, who also taught English at Meadows, guided the Mustangs to the 1994 MSL title contest.
Thorne has been attending the Mustangs' postseason games as has former Meadows coach Pat O'Connell.
Before this season, O'Connell was the only coach to guide Meadows into a sectional (2004).
A coaches' student: Morgan Keller, the only senior on the Mustangs roster, is also a student in coach Ryan Kirkorsky's Contemporary Literature course.
Not only is she excelling in her key role off the bench as a forward, Keller is having the same success in Kirkorsky's class.
"So far, she's acing it," he said.
Keller has already committed to Illinois State for track and field.
Double duty: Tony Wolanski is already one of the few if not only persons to coach three sports in the Mid-Suburban League (Conant football defensive coordinator, Meadows girls basketball assistant and Meadows head softball coach).
His schedule got twice as busy this week.
In addition to helping out the varsity girls basketball team, Wolanski has also been running the first week of practice for his varsity softball team.
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