NORMAL — Kateri Stone could only sit there and watch.
Watch with the pride and butterflies of an older teammate, an older sister in maroon, if you will. Watch with the wistfulness that it should be her out there.
Any other game, any other weekend, there is no girl Montini would rather have at the free-throw line, game on the line, two shots for the win, than Stone. Only this time it was freshman Lea Kerstein, a future go-to Bronco in training, entrusted with the job.
On Friday Kerstein had a 3-pointer for the tie in the final seconds blocked and fall short against Vernon Hills
Fast forward to Saturday. Two Kerstein free throws, two makes, and Montini got a hard-earned win on a weekend when everything seemed a struggle.
“I’m so proud of them. They really stepped up as freshmen,” Stone said of Kerstein and Paulina Castro, the catalysts to Montini’s third-place win over Morton. “I know it’s a scary thing. When I was a freshman I got in at state at the very end, when the game was already won, and I was freaking out for no reason. They’ve come a long way.”
This week and these playoffs did not go quite the way Stone and Montini envisioned.
Suffering a high ankle sprain in the regional final, an injury that in December or January would keep a kid out weeks, she missed both sectional games, then returned for Monday’s supersectional a shell of her usual self.
All week Stone worked the ankle in physical therapy, stayed up until midnight to ice it, tried to will it back. She summoned her fair share of Advil for assistance.
A day removed from an overtime game Friday, Stone’s ankle couldn’t give her any more. Noticeably limping at times, she could only go 11 minutes, took just 1 shot, watched from the bench much of the second half.
“I don’t think I tweaked it during the game or anything — I just think it was sore from yesterday,” Stone said. “I guess you gotta just rest it. Playing every single day was really not the best thing for it. What are you gonna do? It’s the playoffs.”
Montini coach Jason Nichols is not the kind of coach to make excuses, but he made no bones about the impact of Stone’s injury. Take nothing away from Vernon Hills, but he would have liked a shot at them — and potentially Quincy Notre Dame — with a healthy Stone.
After all, you’re talking about Montini’s only double-digit scorer, a kid who attempted 126 more shots than the next Bronco and the kid who hit the money free throws late to beat Hillcrest last season and Wheaton Warrenville South in November.
“I want to make it clear — we are a different team with Kateri hurt. People can disagree with me about that, and I’ll fight them over it,” Nichols said. “She wasn’t 100 percent this weekend, not even close. You’re taking away your leading scorer, your backup point guard, a kid that hit 90 3s this season, your best free-throw shooter. We are not the same team without her.”
This was a year like no other in Lombard.
It started with the storyline of a state champ losing four kids to transfers.
Losing that depth, Montini’s bench became as green as those neon shoes they wore all season. It was a question mark the Broncos couldn’t hide from and spent all year proving they were better than. At one point Saturday Nichols sent out on the floor four freshmen and junior Kelly Karlis.
Ironic, then, that a potentially lost Broncos weekend could be rescued by a pair of freshmen.
“I’m really proud of them,” Stone said. “We were able to overcome a lot of things, we beat Whitney Young, we did things nobody said we could do. We fell short of our goal to win a state championship, but I think we’ve grown a lot as a team. We’re motivated for next year.”
Indeed, you get the feeling that after this weekend the Broncos can’t wait to get back at it. Nichols’ words leaving the media room, part in jest, were “see you guys in November.”
“The younger kids are just inconsistent, they just need more time,” Nichols said. “I think that we could be better next year.
“It really hurt this weekend not having a healthy Kateri, but the kids found a way. I’m proud of the girls for coming back after being absolutely crushed yesterday.”
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