How 2 programs handle being Rockford's only state-ranked high school basketball teams

Lutheran's Walter Hill Jr. takes a shot against Genoa-Kingston's Colin Nesler on Saturday, January 29, 2022, at Rockford Lutheran High School in Rockford.
Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star

There are only two Rockford-area high school basketball teams ranked in the latest statewide polls. Because of this, the Winnebago girls and Lutheran boys just might find the weight of the region on their shoulders once the postseason heats up.

Can they handle the pressure?

"This is what we needed," Winnebago girls coach Judy Krause said right after her team clawed out a 62-57 win over Lutheran on Friday night. "We're definitely seeing everybody's best game these days. And it's a mental thing at this point, and we are learning that we have to be ready every single night."

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Winnebago head coach Judy Krause goes over strategy during a timeout in the second quarter of their game against Freeport Aquin on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Winnebago.

Winnebago was ranked No. 2 in Class 2A, according to an Associated Press panel of sportswriters. And the girls were just awarded the No. 1 seed in their half of the Johnsburg Sectional, and will take on the winner of Port Byron Riverdale and Oregon in the regional semifinal on Valentine's Day in Oregon.

The Lutheran boys are ranked No. 9 in Class 2A, headed into a week that they capped off with a 71-68 home win over rival Winnebago on Friday night.

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"I don't even know if these guys realize the pressure," Lutheran coach Tom Guse said. "They want to win really bad. And when things didn't go real well in the beginning of the year, I think from there they feel like they didn't get respected. And now, they're trying to prove every night that we're a really good basketball team."

As the girls quickly approach the start of the postseason, and the boys hit the backstretch of their season, lets take a look at how these two ranked teams plan on handling the pressure:

Winnebago girls 'almost ready'

Less than one month from the March 3-5 girls state championships, the Winnebago girls (26-2) are back on track after suffering their only two losses of the season within five days of each other in mid-January.

"We've definitely shown some growth during this stretch," Winnebago's returning all-stater Miyah Brown said. "Those losses were learning experiences for us, for sure. ... There's been a lot of outside noise around us this year, but we're figuring out how to block all that stuff out, and go get it."

Winnebago's Miyah Brown looks to the basket during the second quarter of their game on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Byron.

Lutheran (16-10) got four 3-pointers from both Sydney Carlson (18 points) and Mikayla Huffine (17 points) and came charging back in the second half, taking the lead until Brown got hot late. The senior who is committed to Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, buried a trey and sank all four of her free throws down the stretch to keep Winnebago out front. She finished with 17 points, and Campbell Schrank added 15 while Renee Rittmeyer chipped in with 13 as Winnebago refused to lose again.

"We know every game that we play this season, they are coming for us," Rittmeyer said. "Tonight is a perfect example of how we can't just walk in and think we're going to win... We're learning a lot about ourselves these days. I think we're almost ready. (The postseason) is definitely coming up on us fast."

Winnebago, which secured its undefeated Big Northern Conference title with the win Thursday, will host Harlem on Tuesday and Wheaton St. Francis Thursday in the final week of the regular season.

Lutheran boys 'growing into it'

Lutheran head coach Tom Guse gets his team fired up and ready to return to the court during the Crusaders' 71-68 win over Winnebago on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, in Rockford.

Guse said his team was "growing into it" when talking about the winner's mentality just a couple of weeks ago. Now, Lutheran (20-6) has grown even more.

"This was a big game; we really needed this one, for us," said sophomore guard Walt Harris Jr., who scored 28 to lead the way for Lutheran on Friday. "We've always got that target on our back, and we feel it. But we're not feeling the pressure when we're out there playing."

"We just want to keep winning games, and make a state-title run. We don't care about anything else."

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Lutheran bumped its winning streak to 11 games with their win over Winnebago (14-9) on Friday, but it didn't come easy. Ray Maurchie pumped in 29 points and Carl Firch drained four 3-pointers to keep Winnebago nipping at Lutheran's heals all night. The Crusaders led by 11 twice, but couldn't pull away.

Lutheran slammed the door in the end, however, and it will look to finish the regular season on a 15-game win streak over the next two weeks. They can lock up their third straight undefeated Big Northern Conference title next week before finishing the regular season with a pair of nonconference games the following week.

Then the postseason kicks in. Guse expects his team to be ready for a big run.

"We have to try and wrap up the conference first," Guse said. "But for the rest of it, you know, you can't overanalyze it. Everyday if the goal is just to get better and be a good teammate, the rest will take care of itself."

Jay Taft: jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft