Independence was Teutopolis' solution to the IHSA's four-class system, and in year two, it's paying dividends during the Shoes' run to the state final four.
The Shoes left the National Trail Conference at the end of the 2011-2012 season with their sights set on playing schools that prepared them for postseason success.
Teutopolis head coach Laurie Thompson said the school searched for more scheduling flexibility within the NTC and considered moving to another conference, like the Apollo, that's filled with bigger schools.
“We convinced them to try to be independent first and then if it's not what we thought, we would try to go with a bigger conference,” Thompson said.
Thompson still schedules Class 1A rivals, like St. Anthony and Cowden-Herrick/Beecher City, but fills the rest of the season with bigger schools and tougher tests.
This season, the Shoes played 16 schools from Class 3A, one classification above their own, and three schools in Class 4A, but haven't skipped a beat from their NTC history.
Teutopolis won two more games last season (25-8) than their last season as a member of the NTC (23-8). They're 28-5 going into Friday's Class 2A State semifinal against Champaign St. Thomas More.
“The girls had to be more focused, every night, because you don't want to have 10, 12 or 14 losses,” Thompson said. “We were challenged more often. Any team on any night could've beaten us, there's no doubt in my mind.”
Five teams got the best of the third-ranked Shoes this season, including Edwardsville, the fourth-ranked team in Class 4A. The Shoes lost, 58-24, against Edwardsville on Dec. 17
Thompson said she thought her team should've played better against Edwardsville, but said it showed her players where they needed to be to find success.
“They had more athletes to choose from, but they were doing some things right at the time that we weren't, like that aggressiveness on offense that I preach,” Thompson said. “We got to see that there.”
The Shoes returned to Edwardsville for the Christmas Tournament and played a slew of big programs, including McCluer North out of Missouri.
They beat Rockford Auburn, McCluer North and Jacksonville in the tournament, and lost to Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in double overtime. The Shoes finished third overall.
“Those were teams we'd never see, but also the kind of play we wouldn't normally see — dribble-drive, go to the basket hard, athletic schools,” Thompson said. “That helped us.”
The tournament started a challenging stretch for the Shoes, which continued with a win against Antioch and a loss against Breese Central.
Teutopolis avenged the Breese Central loss on Monday, beating them to win the Salem Super-Sectional title and advance to Friday's state semifinal.
“The girls don't like to be beat,” Thompson said. “It left a sour taste in our mouth. They struggled with it and I struggled with it. We were a better team than what we showed.”
It was the third time Teutopolis saw Breese Central live, having watched them in the championship game of the Highland Tournament in mid-January. Thompson's team stuck around, after finishing the tournament, to see how a different team handled the Cougars.
Bigger programs sometimes play different styles than Teutopolis was used to in the NTC, Thompson said. Many opponents this season played a zone defense, so the Shoes had to improve their outside shooting.
Now, Thompson uses the schedule as motivation and extra assurance for her players, who will compete Friday with the final four teams in Class 2A.
She said she reminds her players that they've played “great teams” and that they've been in big atmospheres. Win or lose, she said it's important to take positive things from every game.
“Our season still went on even when we got beat by Edwardsville,” Thompson said. “We still got to come back to school and practice. We do the same things regardless of the schedule we play.”
Teutopolis is getting the same successful results, too, except even better this season. The Shoes will make their first state appearance since the 2007-2008 season on Friday, playing St. Thomas More at 6:30 p.m at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.