Two years ago, just the thought of winning a regional championship was hard to believe for Huntley's Raquel Radermacher.
"We're 8-21, we're facing Boylan in our regional semifinal game and we went scoreless the second half," Radermacher said. "Walking off that court, I don't know. It felt like we were so far away.
"I looked at [coach Steve] Raethz like, ‘What do I do?’ We had one girl who experienced regionals before. Everybody else never experienced it. We didn’t know what we were doing."
As one of five freshmen, with Kamsi Nwogu, Ashley Guazzo, Madison Wash and Briana Bower, and three sophomores (Anna Seng, Sydney Novak and Maddie Hill) on the 2017-18 team, Radermacher and the Red Raiders still dreamed big.
Those players grew up watching some of the program's all-time greats such as Ali Andrews (McHenry County's all-time leading scorer), Morgan Clausen, and many others pose for regional championship photos one season after the next. Winning a regional was almost an expectation for Huntley.
"We were young, but the bar was still set high," Seng said. "We didn’t want to use it as an excuse, our age and lack of experience. it was something we kind of planned and had a goal from the get-go, to win a regional.
"We just had a very long way to go to get there."
Last week, the Raiders accomplished what not long ago seemed so far away.
Huntley beat Hononegah, 34-30, in the Class 4A Rockford Guilford Regional final to claim its first regional championship since 2016. It was the 10th regional title in program history, all under Raethz, who is 361-264 in 21-plus seasons at Huntley.
The No. 3-seeded Raiders (20-13) play top-seeded Dundee-Crown (27-6) in the Huntley Sectional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The winner faces No. 1 Rockford Auburn or No. 2 Barrington in the final at 7 p.m. Thursday.
After graduating six seniors in both 2016 and 2017, Raethz made a choice to go younger.
The 2017-18 team's eight victories tied for the second fewest under Raethz. Only his first team, which was 2-23, had fewer.
"It's been a tough row to hoe, getting to this point," Raethz said. "Two years ago, we brought up three sophomores and five freshmen. It was a tough transition for them to be thrust into that situation. That was a decision as a program we made at the time, kind of hit that reset button and go younger.
"To their credit, they stuck with it, worked very hard and put themselves in this position. They really embraced wanting to be that team to put the program in position to contend for [FVC] and regional titles again."
The Raiders placed third in the FVC at 12-6, trailing only D-C (17-1) and Burlington Central (16-2). Last year, Huntley went 12-19 overall and 7-9 in conference play. In 2018, Huntley was 8-21 and 5-11 in the FVC.
Radermacher and Wash missed last season with torn ACLs, giving this season's team a big boost. The Raiders added another freshman, forward Carley Faulkner, who is second on the team in scoring behind Nwogu, a three-year stater.
Seng has seen the Raiders grow up quickly in a short time.
"It’s crazy the amount we improved, especially on the defensive end," Seng said. "I think its very evident how much work we put into our defensive segments and just how much we pay attention to detail on that end. You can see it in the record and you can see it in how we play.
"On offense, we run stuff more efficiently now, we get the ball out and run it and try to get some transition points, which I really like."
Raethz has seen steady improvements. Last week's regional title win was maybe the team's best defensive performance of the season. Hononegah, last season's Class 4A state third-place finisher, averaged 57.8 points going into the game.
"Our defense has always been a staple for us, but this team has really taken that defensive mentality to heart and defended and guarded well all year," Raethz said. "That was one of our best defensive efforts, holding them to 30 points. I was so proud of them."
A win over Dundee-Crown would be a first for any of Huntley's current players. D-C is 6-0 against the Raiders since the start of the 2017-18 season.
"To go through the [FVC] 17-1 says a lot about their ability to find ways to win games," Raethz said. "They’re a veteran team and they just find ways to get it done. [Coach] Sarah [Miller] does a great job. They truly epitomize what it means to be a team. Both teams would admit that we know each other pretty well. I think it has the potential to be a very competitive game."
Huntley is excited for the rematch.
"I wouldn’t have it any other way," Radermacher said. "I didn't like the way we left it off with them. They’re a very physical team and having the two most physical teams in the conference battling is amazing."
CLASS 4A HUNTLEY SECTIONAL
(1) Rockford Auburn vs. (2) Barrington, 6 p.m.
(1) Dundee-Crown vs. (3) Huntley, 7:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.