By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
POLO, Ill. —
Since last February, Prophetstown has wanted a sectional rematch with Freeport Aquin.
It almost didn’t happen.
Playing one of its best games of the season, Erie put a scare into its main rival before the Prophets pulled out a 36-31 victory to win the Class 1A Polo Regional championship Friday night.
The win sets up a Monday night matchup between Prophetstown, ranked sixth in the Illinois Class 1A ratings, and No. 1 Aquin in a 7:30 p.m. sectional semifinal game in Hanover, Ill.
Erie (20-10) made a statement early, leading 7-2 early and 24-19 with 2:30 to play in the third quarter.
“I was pretty nervous,” Prophetstown senior Riley Walters said.
“I was really nervous, like the whole game,” Prophetstown sophomore Corrie Reiley said.
But trailing by five late in the third quarter is when the Prophets (27-3) came alive. They forced three consecutive Erie turnovers and took advantage offensively. Heather Strike hit a jumper and Walters made a layup to cut the deficit to one. On the next trip down the court, Walters missed a pair of free throws. Strike grabbed an offensive rebound on the second miss and was fouled going up for the shot. She made both free throws to give the Prophets a 25-24 lead with 1:16 to go in the quarter. It was their first lead since a Cassie Reiley 3-pointer put them ahead 9-7 to end the first quarter.
“I knew that if she missed it, we needed it,” Strike said. “Because we were still down, we needed more points. I went to the left (and got the rebound). Then I went straight up and tried to draw the foul.
“It was so much pressure. I was shaking the whole time while shooting.”
Des Lawson countered with a pair of free throws on the other end to give Erie back the lead. On the next possession, Cassie Reiley drilled a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to give Prophetstown a lead it would not relinquish at 28-26.
Prophetstown’s defense clamped down, holding Erie to only a Rachel Cobert layin for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter. But Erie’s defense didn’t budge, either. The Prophets managed only a layup by Walters through the first seven minutes of the quarter.
With 58 seconds left and trailing 32-30, Erie started fouling. Prophetstown was 6-of-13 from the free-throw line at that point, but the Prophets went 6-of-6 in the final minute.
“The game was on the line at that point,” Cassie Reiley said. “We didn’t have five more minutes. It was either make them or that (would) be our last game. We made them when it mattered. We’ll just have to work on free throws at practice.”
Cassie Reiley made a pair to stretch the lead to four points. But Erie junior Courtney Cobert drained a 3-pointer at the other end to make it a one-point game with 42 seconds left. Then, Clare Kramer made a pair of free throws for the Prophets. After an Erie miss, Walters grabbed the rebound, one of her game-high nine, and was fouled with 12 seconds left. She was 1-of-6 from the free-throw line in the game, but made both to stretch the lead to 36-31 and seal the win.
“I didn’t know what was going on with my free throws tonight,” Walters said. “I knew right there either way we had it. If I made them, it was just going to take the pressure off a little bit. That was all I was thinking about.”
Erie missed a final shot, Kramer grabbed the rebound and passed it to Cassie Reiley to dribble out the final seconds of her fourth regional title.
“It was such a close game,” Cassie Reiley said. “I knew if we lost this game it was all over. It was so emotional. I was really emotional once we won because I knew I had at least one more high school game left to play. It was really awesome to think me and Riley have been a part of a regional championship team all four years of high school. That’s what we really wanted.”
She admitted that this was her favorite of her four regionals titles.
“This was one the best,” she said. “It’s my last time ever playing Erie. It was nice to come out on top one last time.”
But as great as the game was for the Prophets, it was as disappointing for the Cardinals.
“It’s heartbreaking, I’m not going to lie,” freshman Rachel Cobert said. “We were right there all throughout the game. ... It was right in our hands and we just couldn’t seal the deal.”
What made it worse in some ways for the Cardinals was the fact that they had chances after double-digit losses in the first two games between the teams this season.
“In practice, we watched film,” Cobert said. “We watched all the mistakes we made in the past games. Our coaches told us different things to try. On defense we really worked on being aggressive and getting fired up. We came out tonight with a positive attitude. I think this is the best we’ve played since the beginning of the year.”
The Cardinals graduate four seniors, but three starters and a few key reserves will return.
“I’m very positive that we’ll come back next year right out of the gate,” Cobert said. “I know we can (get back to a regional final).”
While the Cardinals are done for the season, the Prophets continue on, and it’s because they did something they haven’t had to do much this season.
“We did a nice job of coming back when we were down, which is something we’re not really used to doing,” Cassie Reiley said.
Prophetstown is known for playing tough man-to-man defense, but it started the regional final in a zone. Erie jumped to a 7-2 lead on two layups and a short jumper by Des Lawson.
“We haven’t really played it all season,” Corrie Reiley said. “We decided to change it up this game because they’re not the greatest outside shooters. But they made us switch to man, and then we got back into our rhythm.”
Corrie Reiley and Courtney Cobert guarded each other and essentially took the other out of the game. After scoring 21 points Wednesday in the regional semifinal, Cobert was held to three points.
“I’d jump at her,” Corrie Reiley said. “When she was dribbling, coach (Don) Robinson said to take a jump at her. That probably gets her frustrated. Once she made some turnovers, hopefully that got in her head.”
Corrie Reiley did not score at all.
“My other teammates stepped up and scored enough points,” she said.
One of those teammates who stepped up was Strike, a sophomore who did not score Wednesday in the regional semifinal. She was one of only four Prophets to score; all scored six or more points, led by 11 each from Walters and Cassie Reiley.
“She did great,” Cassie Reiley said. “Coming off the bench can be really hard to do. She knew that she had a place on the team to play tough defense and take the open shot. That’s what she did tonight. I’m really proud of her and all my teammates.”
With the game tied at 11 midway through the second quarter, Rachel Cobert made a pair of free throws. Then Courtney Cobert stole the ball from Cassie Reiley and was racing downcourt for an apparent fastbreak layup. Corrie Reiley swooped in front of Cobert, causing her to take an awkward step and travel.
“We do that in practice a lot,” Corrie Reiley said. “(Robinson) always tells us to come in like an airplane. If I took a swat at it, they probably would have called a foul because it was a wide open court. I came in like an airplane and she was pretty far out, so she didn’t know what to do.”
Erie led 15-12 after a Rachel Cobert putback and a free throw by Cassie Reiley. With time winding down in the half, it was Strike who stepped up. She knocked down a jumper with less than 10 seconds remaining to send Prophetstown into the locker room only trailing by one.
“When I got it, I didn’t hesitate,” Strike said. “I went right away and shot it. I don’t know if I had much confidence in myself, but it went in.”
Sectionals next for Prophets
Now the Prophets have a chance to avenge a season-ending 36-24 loss to Freeport Aquin in last year’s sectional final.
“This will only be the third or fourth time all year that we’ve been an underdog,” Cassie Reiley said. “Usually we’re predicted to win, and this time we’re not. It puts us in a different situation, but maybe it will be for the better.”
Aquin, the defending state champion and top-ranked team, faces No. 6 Prophetstown in the round of 32 statewide.
“It does suck,”Reiley said. “But, at this time of the year rankings don’t mean anything. I think Erie came out tonight and proved that. ... We’re ranked sixth in the state and they’re not ranked. But they gave us a really good game and almost ended up beating us.”
Aquin defeated Dakota 59-38 behind 32 points from Sophie Brunner on Friday night in the Bulldogs’ regional final.
“We’ve been following them and checking their scores,” Reiley said. “We’ve scouted them a few times. We have some video recordings of them. We’ll for sure be watching those games. We know Sophie Brunner is an amazing player. Obviously because she’s going to Arizona State on a full ride. We’re going to have to figure a way to stop and not let her teammates beat us, either. We have to play good defense.”
Against Aquin last year, the Prophets were outscored 12-2 in the fourth quarter, and Brunner scored 23 points. The Prophets have remembered that game often in the last year.
“We think about it everyday,” Reiley said. “We talk about it every day in practice. We talk about Sophie Brunner. This is what our goal has been all year. This is what we’ve worked so hard for — to get that rematch. We’re going to do all that we can do. Our dream is to make it to state.”
Prophetstown will get back to work at 8 a.m. today, hitting the practice court only three wins from their dream coming true.
PROPHETSTOWN 36, ERIE 31
ERIE (20-10) — Paige Rus 1-10 0-0 2, Peyton Rus 2-7 2-4 6, Courtney Cobert 1-9 0-0 3, Des Lawson 1-4 2-2 4, Rachel Cobert 3-5 3-4 9, Laykin Miner 2-7 0-0 4, Lexi Floming 0-0 0-0 0, Kayla Waggoner 1-4 0-0 3. Totals 11-46 7-10 31.
PROPHETSTOWN (27-3) — Cassie Reiley 3-9 3-4 11, Corrie Reiley 0-5 0-0 0, Heather Strike 2-4 2-2 6, Karli Stafford 0-4 0-1 0, Riley Walters 4-12 3-8 11, Clare Kramer 2-4 4-4 8. Totals 11-38 12-19 36.
Erie 7 8 11 5 — 31
Prophetstown 9 5 14 8 — 36
3-point goals — Erie 2-9 (Waggoner 1-3, C. Cobert 1-3, Pa. Rus 0-1, Miner 0-2); Prophetstown 2-3 (Ca. Reiley 2-2, Co. Reiley 0-1). Total fouls — Erie 17; Prophetstown 12. Fouled out — none. Rebounds — Erie 34 (R. Cobert 8, Pe. Rus 5, C. Cobert 5); Prophetstown 38 (Walters 9, Stafford 7). Assists — Erie 4 (C. Cobert 3); Prophetstown 6 (Ca. Reiley 2, Co. Reiley 2). Steals — Erie 3 (Pa. Rus, Pe. Rus, C. Cobert); Prophetstown 9 (Walters 3, Co. Reiley 3). Blocks — Erie 4 (R. Cobert 3, Lawson); Prophetstown 3 (Ca. Reiley, Walters, Kramer). Turnovers — Erie 15; Prophetstown 13.