By John Ring
It looked to be just another season opening game for the Galesburg Silver Streaks but it was much more than that.
Thiel Gym was abuzz minutes before tipoff when word started to spread that Coach Evan Massey was going to start three freshmen and two sophomores against Peoria Manual.
Think about it one of the best basketball programs in the State, coming off its 17th consecutive season of 20-plus wins every year, was starting three freshmen and two sophomores. The only other team in recent history to do that was Oak Park Fenwick, which started four freshmen last year and like the Streaks the Friars are a state power.
Add to it that in the long and historic legacy of Streak basketball, never before had three or even two freshmen started a game and the gym was electrified just minutes before tipoff.
"We found out about it last night," said freshman point guard Taylor Young, who got the start alongside freshmen Kelly Ricketts and Rachel Pendry. "I was really, really nervous before the game and when they announced the lineups. But it wore off after running down the court a few times. By then, I was more excited than nervous."
It happened in large part because Galesburgs leading scorer and rebounder from last year, LaToya Wright, will miss the first few games of the season.
Manual and Galesburg battled evenly for the better part of the first quarter until a late Streaks 18-2 run gave them a 31-16 halftime lead. But aside from the freshmen, the big story was the play of sophomores Claire Anderson and Brenna Saline , who looked nothing like they did a year ago.
You could see the confidence in their faces. Anderson launched more shots in the first three minutes of the game than she would in the first three quarters last year. Claire wound up scoring a career-high 13 points. Saline was Saline. She drove the lane, launched three-pointers and pump-faked her way to scoring a career-high 18 points.
"The points didnt matter to us, it was getting the win," said Saline. "Winning is all that matters to us."
Anderson had two steals, a basket and a beautiful underhanded assist that Saline converted into a basket in the first minute of the third quarter when the Streaks threatened to blow the game open. But the Rams rallied and cut Galesburgs lead to 49-41 after three quarters.
But Saline and Anderson combined for 11 of Galesburgs 13 points in the 4th quarter and the Streaks held on for the win. "Once they cut the lead, we just focused on Galesburg basketball," said Anderson. "We needed to do what we had to do. We needed this win."
Ricketts and Pendry each scored six points in their varsity debut. Both did some nice things inside and on the press. Young scored the most points (11) and made the biggest impact by a freshman making a debut since Joey Range took the court at Thiel as a 9th grader in 1994. Taylor only turned the ball over twice, created some havoc on the press with her speed and played nearly 25 minutes in her first game.
All three made mistakes, which is to be expected but they looked to be going a hundred miles an hour sometimes and oozed confidence. "Sometimes I get a little worked up," admitted Young. "But players like Claire and Brenna, they kept us going. We turned to them when it got tight and they came through for us."
"Freshmen are going to get down on themselves," said Saline. "It was our job to pick them back up. We were the leaders out there and thats what we needed to do."
The Rams werent the cannon fodder team many expected from a once-proud program that bottomed out. Patrice Roddy and Erica Johnson combined for 32 points and gave Manual a potent inside-outside game. This was no 80-8 opening day win over MacArthur
At the end of a memorable night, Saline discounted the youth factor. "I dont think it matters about age.," said Saline. "If we play well, who cares about age?"
"We learned from Jenna Bicego and Brittany Stephan last year," added Anderson. "We looked up to them and learned from them. Now, its our turn."
And Taylor Young wound down from the most hectic 48 hours of her life. "Ive never played in front of so many fans but their energy kept me going," said the 56" point guard. "When I found out I was starting, I thought to myself, Well, just go out and play your game. Thats what I tried to do."
It worked. The Streaks are 1-0 but have a tough road ahead, waiting for LaToya, waiting for Sade Boyd to be eligible and waiting to get through their growing pains which is inevitable.
Young, who converted a summer of tough basketball play into a season-opening start, smiled and talked to reporters after the game.
"Ill still be nervous for the next game," she said, "just not quite as much."