The success of the St. Luke 8th grade girls basketball team speaks for itself.
The Bearcats rolled to an 18-0 record this season, highlighted by a 33-26 win against Ascension in the championship game of the Classic League. St. Luke also won the Berwyn PAV YMCA Tournament and took second in the St. Petronille Treis/Aird Tournament.
“I think this was our hardest year because it was our last one together and other teams wanted it as much as we did,” St. Luke point guard Lily Reardon said. “Each opponent gave us their best effort, but we found ways to win. We have had a lot of great moments as a team.”
Indeed, the team has amassed a remarkable 53-0-1 record and won four straight Classic League championships along with multiple tournament titles since 5th grade.
In addition to their success on the scoreboard the past four years, the Bearcats have comported themselves as true champions on and off the court.
“After the championship game this season, an Ascension parent came up to me and offered congratulations on winning,” said head coach Kevin Hanley, who graduated from St. Luke in 1989 . “He also told me that he’s watched our team play the past four years and that we have not only a great group of athletes but very respectful girls.”
Carrying a roster of 17 players split into three interchangeable teams (Blue, Gold and White), the Bearcats are blessed with talent, depth and chemistry.
“We have a lot of variety with girls who can play multiple positions,” Reardon said. “I think we’ve had so much success the last four years because we have all known each other for so long. We’ve been going to same school for about 10 years.
“We always work hard and give great effort in practice and games. I think we also have great communication on the court.”
Reardon, the Classic League MVP, exemplifies the team’s unselfish attitude.
“This is a really good group of girls and it starts with Lily,” Hanley said. “It’s a huge compliment that she was the league MVP because she was chosen for that award by the other coaches and athletic directors in the Classic League.
“Lily is really talented and athletic but she’s also unselfish. She can hit 3-pointers all day but she always involves her teammates in the game. She has great floor presence and truly makes her teammates better.”
Patti Cesarini, Claire Hanley, Angelique Lorenzo, Bella Pacente, Kaitlyn Paulsen and twins Elena and Ava Vaccaro were other leaders for the loaded Bearcats. Dayja Chmielewski, Stephanie Diaz, Emma Dugan, Mary Monica Ebzery, Jillian Johnson, Aimee Morrissey, Allison Riggs, Palesha Taylor and Caitlyn Wirkiowski round out the St. Luke roster.
“To put things in perspective, I always felt like our top 10 or 12 girls could start on any team we played,” Hanley said. “I never had to worry during the season if someone was injured because another girl would step up.”
While St. Luke is respected throughout the Classic League, local rivals have been trying to knock off the Bearcats for years.
“Ascension and St. Giles are probably our biggest rivals,” Ava Vaccaro said. “We always want to beat them and be No. 1. The championship games are always fun. As a team, we mesh together really well and we love basketball.”
Although there were some close calls this season, St. Luke was able to stave off the competition at every turn.
“It’s been fun to see how much Ascension, St. Giles and St. Vincent have improved,” Hanley said. “All three of those schools really compete hard against us. We actually trailed a few games (this season) which was uncommon, but we always found a way to win.
“Winning four straight league championships makes this team special, plus the fact they are just a great group of girls.”
Like the Golden State Warriors, the Bearcats are comfortable playing any style although up-tempo basketball suits their personnel the best.
“We’re very aggressive with our press and we believe defense wins games,” Hanley said. “In a lot of games, we were able to establish a big lead with our press and then pull back a bit and play more half-court basketball. Transitioning from defense to offense is another aspect of the game the girls do well and they communicate great at both ends of the floor.
“We can play different styles for sure. The girls are very good at knowing what to do and when to do it in different game situations. To see them apply what they learned in practice to games was fun to watch.”
Hanley, who has coached this group the past four years, was assisted by coaches Pete Pacente and Jamie Johnson this season. In previous years, Julie Cesarini coached the team with Hanley.
“Julie was the coach of this group the first two years and I just helped out,” Hanley said. “Julie played college basketball and had a really nice influence on the girls. She helped them get off to a good start in fifth grade.”
The players certainly have appreciated having so many good coaches during their run of excellence.
“Coach Hanley and Coach Cesarini and the other coaches have always pushed us hard in practice,” Reardon said. “They always encouraged us to the do the best we can. They are a big reason why we became a great team.”
Success on the lower levels
The Bearcats are also flourishing on the 4th through 7th grade levels. The 7th grade squad tied with Ascension for second place in the Classic League during the regular season. The 6th grade team took first place in the B Division of the Trinity Tournament, while the 5th graders notched second place in both the regular season and playoffs of the Classic League and also placed first in the B Division of the Lombard Christmas Classic.
Although they don’t play in the Classic League, the 4th graders are making their mark as a top team in the Metro League in Niles.
Liston visits Bearcats
En route to another stellar campaign this year, the 8th grade squad was treated over the holidays by a visit from St. Luke alumna and Minnesota Lynx guard Tricia Liston. When she attended St. Luke, Liston led the Bearcats to three straight Classic League titles.
Last summer, Liston and former Fenwick teammate Devereaux Peters won a WNBA championship with the Lynx. The River Forest native also starred at Duke University as a prolific shooter.
“It was a great experience when Tricia came to talk with our team,” Reardon said. “Knowing she started at the same point we are at now is great motivation. It shows that you can be successful if you really work for it.”
When she met the Bearcats, Liston encouraged the players to develop their game but also pursue interests outside of basketball.
“I think a lot of kids today get so caught up in one sport and that’s all they focus on,” Hanley said. “Although some girls on our team didn’t regularly start, they can still really play. Tricia obviously focused on basketball in high school, but she also mentioned that she had interest in other sports like soccer and tennis. I’m glad she conveyed that message to the girls.”
The Vaccaro twins certainly prefer some diversity in athletics. In addition to basketball, they play volleyball and are on a travel softball team.
During the fall sports season, they joined fellow hoopsters Lorenzo, Johnson and Morrissey to power the St. Luke 8th grade cross country team to first place at the Walther Christian Academy meet, runner-up finishes at the Guerin Prep meet and CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) championship meet at Maryville Academy and fourth place at the SPL (Suburban Parochial League) Warrenville meet in the fall.
“We’re very close so it’s fun to play several sports together,” Elena Vaccaro said. “We always look out for each other on and off the court.”
Soon enough, the members of the St. Luke 8th grade girls basketball team will be attending high school mostly at Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick or Trinity.
Their accomplishments over the past four years, however, will forever remain not only in the record books but in their hearts.