"Anytime the defending state champion is your No. 3 seed, I think that bodes well for the strength of the field," said Dave Feeney, referring to the Class AA girls portion of the 27th annual State Farm Holiday Classic.
The 64-team, 128-game, six-venue event is the nation's largest holiday basketball tournament - and its AA girls division is loaded.
No. 1-state ranked Peoria Richwoods (13-2), the reigning tournament and state champion, is seeded third. The Knights won last week's Sterling Tournament.
The top seed is No. 2-state ranked Bolingbrook (9-0) followed by No. 8-state ranked Galesburg (9-3).
Feeney's 5-5 Normal Community squad is seeded 13th among 16 AA girls teams. Other Intercity entrants are No. 10-seeded Bloomington (6-4) and No. 15-seeded Normal West (2-7).
"The one through four seeds are all good, deep and talented teams," said Feeney, whose squad opens with No. 4-seeded Naperville Neuqua Valley (8-4) at 7:30 tonight at Normal West High School.
Bolingbrook, fourth in last year's state tournament, has several players being heavily recruited by colleges, according to Coach Tony Smith, whose team won last week's Plainfield Central Holiday Tournament.
"They are a fun group to watch," he said.
The group includes 6-foot-3 wing Samantha Woods (10 points per game), 6-0 forward Mauvolyene Adams (16 ppg), 5-10 point guard Brittney Thomas (12 ppg), 5-11 guard Miranda Tate (10 ppg), 5-6 guard Janisha Gearlds and 6-2 center Shantina Boyd.
"Brittney can do it all," Smith said. "She has to be one of the top guards in the country.
"Mauvolyene is a monster on the glass. She's like a Charles Barkley type of player. She is an aggressive player."
Woods, who has 3-point range, transferred from Oak Park Fenwick, an Elite Eight qualifier last year.
"Samantha is long and athletic," Smith said. "She's an inside-outside type of player."
Bloomington faces No. 7-seeded Rock Island (6-3) at 11:30 a.m. today while Normal West meets Galesburg at 4:30 p.m.
Bloomington, on a three-game winning streak, would need to upset Rock Island for a chance to face Richwoods in Wednesday's 9 p.m. quarterfinal at Redbird Arena. The Rocks have lost by two points to both Thornwood and Rock Island Alleman, the reigning Class A state champion.
"We would sure like to play Richwoods," said BHS coach Sondra Vogel. "I feel good about where we are at going into the tournament. I'd like to see us battle better at both ends. I need us to put four quarters together."
Kristin Petrinec leads the Purple Raiders with a 12.9 scoring average. Teammate Beth Current has posted four double-doubles.
"I have a lot of belief in this group," Vogel said.
Feeney calls Neuqua Valley a versatile team adept at switching defenses.
"It will be a good test for our kids," he said. "We'll have to adapt. I think Neuqua Valley is a team we can compete with."
Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams uses a 12-deep substitution pattern.
"So far, this has been very successful for us with everyone contributing," he said. "We are a very aggressive defensive team. Defense is our staple."
Feeney believes his team, which has allowed just 29.5 points its last two games, should have been seeded higher considering its strength of schedule.
"Naperville Neuqua Valley drew a tough No. 13 seed," he said.
The Ironmen are led by 6-foot Western Michigan recruit Emily Hanley, who is averaging 14 points and 9.8 rebounds. Teammate Krystal Gundy adds seven points a game.
Feeney hopes the tournament prepares his team for its Jan. 5 game at No. 14-state ranked Champaign Central.
"The big thing is the last two weeks and the last two games I have felt our team played with more intensity and a better understanding of how to make each other better," he said. "I'd like to see that continue."
Normal West faced Galesburg in last year's first round, losing, 54-36. The Silver Streaks have lost to Class A's No. 3-state ranked Rock Island Alleman, Maine South and Class AA's No. 6 state-ranked Buffalo Grove.
"Galesburg is a team with a lot of tradition and success," said Wildcat coach Steve Price, who wants to see how his squad handles a short turn-around time between games.
"We've had the opportunity to have three, four or five days to prepare for an opponent and now we're looking at one day or less to prepare. I'm excited to see how the kids respond to that."
Normal West is led by Allison Shelton (10 ppg).
"Kayla Braffet the last three games has done a good job of converting points off of steals," added Price. "She does a great job for being a sophomore."
Galesburg is a capable 3-point shooting team, whose top players include Kelly Ricketts (12.5 ppg), Brenna Saline (13.5 ppg) and Claire Anderson.
"I think a strength for us is we have pretty good depth," said Galesburg coach Evan Massey, whose team's depth has been tested since two-year starter Rachel Pendry was injured three weeks ago. She won't return until next month. "We hope this tournament will be an opportunity for a couple players to emerge."
Lia Anderson has been starting in Pendry's place.
"We feel we've got some pretty skilled kids," said Massey, whose team is outshooting foes from the field, 45 percent to 41 percent.
Richwoods, which opens with No. 14-seeded Mount Zion at 10 a.m. today, began the season with four returning starters, but all-state point guard Biannca Ward "is not a member of the team at this time nor will she be at the Classic," according to Coach John Gross.
The other returnees are Hanna Reising (10.8 ppg), Kim Knaub and Rachal Waldschmidt.
"We are struggling finding leadership on the floor," said Gross, whose team has lost to Galesburg and Rockton Hononegah. "We haven't become a consistent team at either end of the floor."
The one out-of-state AA girls entrant is No. 8-seeded Montgomery (Ala.) Carver, whose assistant coach is WNBA veteran Merlakia Jones.