Carmel routs Vernon Hills to reach sectional final

A year ago, Carmel rode a tall and dominant frontcourt to the program's first Class 3A state championship.

After losing Grace Sullivan to graduation and with senior forward Mia Gillis sidelined due an injury to her left hand, the Corsairs have kept their sights set on cutting down the nets again in Normal.

Despite graduation and injuries, the Corsairs remain on track to defend their state title due to a revamped team.

Yes, Jordan Wood, a do-it-all senior guard/forward who signed with Michigan State, is the driving engine for the Corsairs. But the new-look Corsairs, led by guards Ashley Schlabowske, Anna Hartman, Kyla Smith, Maia Cordova and Josie Hartman, showed off their potential in a stunning performance against Vernon Hills in Tuesday's Class 3A Deerfield sectional semifinal.

The Corsairs attacked the taller Cougars with stifling pressure, in the half-court and full court, to force an abundance turnovers, while spreading the scoring via stellar passing.

The Corsairs reeled off 15 straight points in the first half to cruise to a 58-23 victory over the Cougars, advancing to Thursday's sectional championship against Deerfield, who beat Lake Forest 77-47 on Tuesday.

The top-seeded Corsairs (24-8) made simple tasks difficult for the fourth-seeded Cougars (21-11), who won the program's first regional title since 2015. Carmel relied on its deep cadre of guards to speed up the tempo, leading to several first-half baskets off turnovers.

Carmel coach Ben Berg said his team played a complete game to advance to the sectional finals.

"I think when Mia got hurt and Anna came back full-time, we had to kind of adapt and almost reinvent ourselves in a few weeks, and we did that," Berg said. "We're playing little faster and able to pressure some, and it gives us opportunities in the open floor."

With 6-foot-4 Grace Koepke, 6-1 Alexa Cieslinski and 6-foot Ava Barszcz forming an imposing front line all season, the Cougars' strength was neutralized by Carmel's speed, defensive pressure and depth. Wood, Schlabowske and Anna Hartman set the tone, as Wood had 4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists and 2 blocks in the opening quarter. Schlabowske, who hit the game-winning free throws in the 3A final against Nazareth last season, scored 18 of her game-high 20 points in the first half to stake the Corsairs to a commanding 37-12 lead.

"It's been fun pushing the ball in transition and finally being able to translate into games," Schlabowske said. "We had wide open layups and had everyone contribute."

Wood collected an impressive stat line, finishing with 15 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks.

"It was really fun, but unfortunately with Mia out, we get to run and just get up the floor," Wood said. "That's what we like to do. We run more with the new guards than last year, so it's exciting with the new change we've had lately."

Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner, who led the Cougars to a pair of back-to-back second place finishes from 2011-13, credited the Corsairs for causing fits for his team. Koepke, an American University recruit, led the Cougars with 12 points and 8 rebounds.

"We got pushed out of our comfort zone and tried to play at our pace, but they forced the pace," Brettner said. "It's unfortunate but doesn't take away from our season. We had 21 wins and won a regional. It's a credit to all the kids. They got better and better as the season went on."

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