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1997 Women's Basketball (2007)

ÒUnfinished business.Ó It was March 3, 1996. As the last seconds ticked off the clock in a hot, muggy, gym, the fans from both sides in its packed stands recognized the obvious: the heartbroken Ramblers, who had just suffered a bitter loss to the soon-to-be state champions, were not done yet. This was destiny delayed, this end only a beginning for a team on the road to greatness and the record books. Unfinished business, indeed. One year and one week later, basking in the glow of triumph at centercourt of Redbird Arena, the state trophy cradled in their arms, the 1997 Ramblers could look back on the long and winding road with a profound satisfaction. They had done it, punctuating a 31-2 record in definitive fashion and establishing a legacy long to be remembered by all who were fortunate to have been a part of it. The 1997 GirlsÕ Basketball team was a study in selflessness, purpose, and unity. Blessed with impressive individual talent, the Ramblers subordinated ego and individuality to the demands of the greater good. With four of the top six returning, the players knew the system and the expectations. Chemistry would be the key. Coach Tanya Johnson, ably assisted by Mary Just, Kerry Durham, and Cindy Cernach, proved the master alchemist, and the result was a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. A fundamentally sound, unselfish team brimming with confidence and hardened by big-game experience, Loyola played with cohesion and discipline. They played the way they were coached to play. At one end, the Ramblers ran their half-court offense with ruthless precision. At the other, a suffocating, relentless pressure defense gave no quarter. Boasting five starters who would play college ball (including four in Division I), the 1997 Ramblers took the floor with one of the most talented teams ever to wear Loyola uniforms. Anchoring the front line stood 6Õ1Ó Olga Gvozdenovic, a premier post player and prolific inside scorer. Flanking her at forward was 6Õ1Ó senior Liz Fletcher, an intimidating defensive presence and a hard-nosed rebounder. At the other was junior Jeanette Paukert, a versatile court leader of myriad strengths and no discernable weakness. Manning the backcourt, 5Õ8Ó sophomore Laura Sobieszczyk, a brilliant playmaker and defensive master, ran the offensive set. One of her jobs was to get the ball to 5Õ8Ó All-State senior Kristin Santa, a scoring phenom whose offensive prowess could not obscure a dazzling all-round game. A deep and talent-laden bench was led by sophomore guard, Katie Murphy, senior guard-forward Erin Munroe, and sophomore forward Christine Switsky. Along with senior guard Megan Finn, Devin McCue, Jackie Sadowski, and Carolyn Proesel, they formed an indispensable complement to the starting five. After storming through the regular season wit 23 wins against only 2 losses, the 1997 Ramblers were poised and ready for a much-anticipated return to post-season play. Their two regular season losses Ðby 9 to Fenwick and by 14 to Pickering (Ohio) with the same week in January Ð had awakened a complacent team, galvanizing their play in the stretch drive to the post season. With a dominating victory over Mother McAuley, 68-53 in the GCAC title game behind them, the Ramblers cruised to the Sectional title game and showdown with rival Maine West. In this the most crucial game on their journey to the state title, Loyola trailed most of the contest. The Ramblers survived, however, taking their first lead at the 3:18 mark in the fourth quarter before holding on for a hard-fought, 66-61 victory. The grudge match with Stevenson in the super-sectional turned into a blow-out, and the Ramblers were headed to the Elite Eight in Bloomington. After dispatching unbeaten Normal West, 62-49, in the quarter finals, a semi-final tilt with powerful Marshall loomed. Down 9-0 early on, Loyola recovered and eventually pulled away 70-61 behind GvozdenovicÕs 33 points and SantaÕs 27. Only Taylorville and their star, Alison Curtain, lay between the Ramblers and their first state championship. However, Taylorville proved no match for LoyolaÕs stifling defense and high-octane offense. On the perimeter, Santa set a new championship record with seven three-pointers, four in the first quarter, on her way to a 25-point outburst. Inside the paint, Gvozdenovic completely dominated, pouring in 25 points of her own on 10 of 14 shooting. Senior Erin Monroe came off the bench to shut down Curtin, and the Ramblers rolled to a 59-40 victory and the state title. Individual post-season honors poured in, the just dessert of a glorious season. Santa, Gvozdenovic, and Sobieszczyk earned spots on the Pioneer Press and the Chicago Sun Times All-Area teams as well as the IBCA All-State team. Santa was also named to the Chicago Sun Times and the Champaign News-Gazette All-State teams, and Jeanette Paukert was recognized with her selection to the Pioneer Press All-Area Second team. Finally, Coach Tanya Johnson was honored for her work when she was named Coach of the Year by the Illinois Basketball CoachesÕ Association. The individual honors, however, were of secondary importance. The years of toil and sacrifice and pain -- the foundation necessary for the achievement of grand dreams -- had been worth it after all. Ten years ago, the 1997 Loyola GirlsÕ Basketball Team had dreamed the grand dream, and then had gone back to do the work necessary to achieve it. That team now stood upon the summit of the Illinois prep basketball world, its greatness confirmed and its legacy assured.

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