Having three Division I college recruits back from an Intercity Tournament title team makes the Normal Community High School girls basketball squad an easy pick to repeat.
That said, some of the other four entrants are eager to test the Iron as the 40th annual tournament begins its five-day run on Monday at University High with Central Catholic facing Normal West at 6 p.m. and NCHS meeting the host Pioneers at 7:30.
Bloomington opens play at 6 p.m. Wednesday against U High.
"I know they want to repeat as Intercity champions and then charge to that Big 12 crown we were close to last year," said NCHS coach Marcus Mann, whose returnees include Illinois State recruit Maya Wong, Alabama-Birmingham bound Kylee Schneringer and Evansville commit Abby Feit.
"It's definitely been on our radar the past few years to try to get out of the regional and have some postseason success as well."
NCHS went 23-7 overall and 9-1 in the Big 12 Conference a year ago after going 4-0 in the Intercity Tournament.
A 5-foot-8 junior, Wong dribbled anywhere she wanted last year while averaging 10.2 points, 3.7 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals.
Feit, a 6-1 senior, chipped in 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 56.3 percent from the field. Schneringer, a 5-11 junior guard, added 8.8 points and 4.0 rebounds. Another returning starter is 6-0 senior Cassie Kraft.
Those looking to crack the starting lineup include 6-0 sophomore Mallory Oloffson, 5-6 senior Katie Broad, 5-5 junior Kailah Carter and 5-4 junior Regan White.
"Intercity is always a tough run for us," said Mann, whose seven-year coaching record is 94-81. "It's kind of a gift and a curse because we have to go through the fire early. It does prepare us for holiday time."
Central Catholic: Tying for second at 2-2 in the Intercity last year were Central Catholic and BHS. The Saints, in Class 3A because of the IHSA success factor, went on to finish 22-6 and 9-0 in the Illini Prairie Conference.
Central returns two Pantagraph All-Area first-team stars in 5-6 senior Lauren Shanks and 6-0 senior Bailey Coffman. Shanks averaged 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.2 steals and 3.4 assists while Coffman chipped in 14.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 2.2 assists.
"This senior group (of four) hasn't won Intercity," said Coffman's coach and mother, Debbie, who is 469-122 entering her 22nd year. "They would like to try to pull that off."
Other returning starters are 5-8 senior Lillie Foley, 5-6 sophomore Katie Steinman and 5-6 sophomore Abbey Davis.
"I wouldn't count out Normal West (in the Intercity)," said the elder Coffman. "I thought they looked really good this summer. I think it will be a good Intercity."
Normal West: Corey Ostling enters his fourth year as coach at Normal West with a 44-51 record after going 18-10 overall and 7-3 in the Big 12 a year ago.
"My expectations are high," he said. "This group has come a long way."
Nine players return including Illinois Central College-recruit Ayanna Gibbs (7.6 ppg), first-team all-Big 12 star Tresoir Newson (7.7 ppg) and second-team pick Olivia Demosthenes (8.4 ppg). Other returning senior starters are 5-5 Whitney Bozarth (5.6 ppg) and 5-8 Jess Jacobs (7.5 ppg).
"I really like our team this year," said Ostling, who hopes the Intercity Tournament helps him sort out rotations and which players mesh the best. "It's gelling that needs to happen. One of our huge strengths is our depth."
Bloomington: BHS coach Tom Whiting enters his fifth season at 54-56 after going 16-12 and 6-4 in the Big 12 a year ago. His top seniors are the O'Neal twins, Bett and Bree, along with Kamaria Gant.
"We never quit and we play really hard so I think that is probably going to be our strength," said Whiting, whose goal is to average more than 50 points per game. "We're going to get up and down the floor and we're going to press."
Whiting hopes the Purple Raiders can overcome a lack of height with outside shooting and speed. He rates NCHS and reigning Class 3A state champion Peoria Richwoods as the Big 12 favorites.
"It will be interesting getting through Intercity to see where we're at," he said. "I think it will be a good test for everybody."
University High: Laura Sellers, 250-107 entering her 13th year at U High, welcomed back six players including 5-9 junior starter Chelsie Price from a squad that went 11-19 and 9-9 in the Central State Eight Conference.
"I see different starting lineups regularly," said Sellers, whose only senior is 5-5 Abby Klein. "Every time we do a different drills, different kids are a little better."
The Pioneers, who have no 6-footers, have a 10-player roster that may expand after swimmers, cross country runners and volleyball players come out.
Sellers hopes her team improves upon last year's 0-4 Intercity showing. The first seven games include battles with powerhouses Washington, Rochester and Springfield. Sellers rates the latter two as league favorites with Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
"I'm assuming we're expected to be in the middle to the bottom half," she said.