Program-changing weekendMONTEMURRO: Program-changing weekend

NORMAL – The remnants of any tears erased, the Huntley’s girls basketball team stood along the baseline at Redbird Arena smiling as they posed for pictures and showed off their medals.

The Red Raiders’ introduction to the rest of the state didn’t end as they hoped in a 60-27 loss to Whitney Young, but their Class 4A fourth-place finish punctuated a program-changing weekend.

A team seeded third in their regional isn’t supposed to rip off five straight wins to reach the state semifinals. But the Red Raiders did just that en route to the program’s first state appearance. Even after losses to Rolling Meadows and Whitney Young, Huntley’s unexpected success, nearly derailed before it began with two consecutive losses to end the regular season, is only the starting point of what this program can become.

“These two losses can’t define who we are and what we’re about,” Huntley coach Steve Raethz said. “This team has been the embodiment of team and chemistry and togetherness. To do what we’ve done and bring home a Class 4A fourth-place state trophy is unbelievable.”

Now the hard part begins for Huntley. The Red Raiders, who were underdogs from the onset of the playoffs, will be expected to repeat their success next season. For a team that didn’t even win its own division, the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division, to make it to state, well, be prepared to wear the metaphorical bulls-eye on your jersey next season.

“We know we can always improve and get to the next level,” Sam Andrews said.

If they haven’t already, the Red Raiders need to adopt the motto “State or bust” next season. With seven players returning, including four starters and leading scorers Sam Andrews and Ali Andrews, there’s no reason to accept any other outcome.

“I think you have to reevaluate your goals every season, but with the players we have coming back for them to not be having those thoughts and aspirations, I think they need to have them,” Raethz said. “Why not? Why not us?”

Huntley’s quest for another state berth will be hindered by the loss of senior guard Haley Ream. That might be difficult to believe looking at a box score, but her biggest contributions come on the defensive end, often matched up against their opponent’s best player. On Saturday it meant trying to stop Whitney Young guard Linnae Harper, who will play for Kentucky next year.

There were ugly moments at Redbird Arena for the Red Raiders, however, the opportunity to build off a special weekend is there for the taking.

“I told them how proud I was of them and how they’ve set the bar higher in the program for what they’ve done,” Raethz. “Just what an absolute privilege it’s been to coach them. … In my 14 years coaching, I haven’t had a better group of kids, with winning aside. This is a group of kids that would do anything for each other on and off the floor.”

• Sports reporter Meghan Montemurro can be reached at MMontemurro@Shawmedia.com or on Twitter @M_Montemurro.