It’s hard for Doug Dahnke not to look ahead.
With Illinois high school sports being divided into four classes for the first time this coming school year, his Martinsville girls basketball team will be returning the nucleus of seniors who will be starting for a fourth consecutive year, and with 58 victories under their belts in their first three varsity seasons.
How many schools with enrollments under 350 — the number that’s considered right now to be the cutoff point between Class 1A and Class 2A — will have one or possibly two Division I girls high school basketball players (Heidi Dahnke recently made a verbal commitment to Illinois-Chicago, and Brittani Wolfe of Martinsville is also getting DI looks)?
“The last several years, eastern Illinois has had some awful good [high school girls basketball] programs,” the Bluestreaks’ coach said recently. “Paris, Teutopolis, Lawrenceville, Olney … this will give us a chance to play against schools our own size, and get more recognition for girls who work just as hard.”
Despite two 19-win seasons and a 20-victory campaign, the Bluestreaks haven’t gotten far in postseason play. They’ve been eliminated by Paris twice (including the Tigers’ 2005 Elite Eight team) and Teutopolis once.
Last season, despite a No. 5 seed in a 20-team sectional, Martinsville still wound up in the same regional as T-town’s top-seeded Lady Shoes.
Dahnke’s team wouldn’t mind playing those schools this season, just not in postseason. Martinsville has a home game this year, in fact, against a Terre Haute South team that could be the top-ranked Class 4A team in Indiana.
“We want to keep the same strong schedule we had,” Dahnke told the Tribune-Star. “We’ve been trying to play bigger schools to prepare us for the four-class system.
“We’ve never shied away from competition, and I think that will pay dividends — both on the court and in life.”
Among the teams Dahnke expects to see in postseason this year at Chrisman, Shiloh, Tri-County, Arcola, Arthur and Neoga. Proposals for tournament groupings he’s seen have the Bluestreaks near the southern boundary of a grouping mostly north of I-70.
The Bluestreaks are also eligible now to apply to be sectional and/or regional hosts, Dahnke added.
“You never know, with things like injury and illness … but the girls who are seniors this year had success in junior high (50-2 in two seasons, with a seventh-grade state title and an eighth-grade runner-up finish),” he pointed out.
The boys basketball team at Hutsonville-Palestine doesn’t quite have those credentials, but there’s one similarity between the Tigers and the female Bluestreaks. In 6-foot-4 swingman Ryan Roberts, Hutsonville-Palestine has a player that any Class 1A team — and most of the 2A, 3A and 4A schools — would love to have.
“Obviously [the four-class system] eliminates some of the bigger schools in the area and gives us a level playing field in postseason,” coach Denis Bennett said. “I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of schools we could play [in postseason competition].”
Regardless of where and whom the Tigers will be playing, Bennett is sure of one thing.
“We’ve got a really good player to lead us,” he said when asked about Roberts. “We think he’s the best player in the area … it makes for an interesting postseason.”
Martinsville is also in its last season as a Little Illini Conference member, but Bennett hasn’t heard of any plans for the Hutsonville-Palestine co-op to leave the LIC.
“It’s so hard to schedule now anyway, I don’t see that happening,” he noted.
A changing picture of conference affiliations is one of the few changes that Wabash Valley’s Class 2A teams might anticipate, said coach Tom Brannan of the Marshall boys basketball team.
“As far as Marshall is concerned, we’re sitting in the middle of [Class] 2A [both in enrollment and geography] just like we were sitting in the middle of Class A before,” he said. “We’ll have to beat the same teams we had to beat before … we just don’t know where the state will draw the line [for postseason tournament groupings].
“We’re right on I-70, which is sometimes a dividing line,” he continued. “We could go north or south, or east or west. One proposal I’ve seen has us going north, with St. Joe-Ogden and Tolono Unity and Paris, but you never know. They could put us down south too.”
The Lions, who figure to be led during the coming season by junior twins Logan and Lucas Eitel, are coming off a successful summer campaign and hope to make postseason noise wherever they’re sent, Brannan said. But that’s certainly not a change from previous years.
“We’ve always taken pride in playing a tough schedule against big schools. That’s one of the reasons we play in the [Pizza Hut] Wabash Valley Classic,” he said. “Now eventually some [other] schools in our conference may decide to get out, because they won’t see us in postseason anyway … but as of right now, nothing is changing.”
The Lions will continue to apply to be postseason tournament hosts as they were during the past season — although in retrospect, Brannan quipped that he might have chosen a different year for the site to rotate Marshall’s way.
“We were glad to host [a Class A regional] last year,” he said, “but probably our best years [as potential regional champions] are ahead of us.”
The Wabash Valley’s premier Illinois Class A program, Casey softball, also figures to endure few changes. Coach Katie O’Connell’s Warriors have been shifted hither and yon for regional play anyway, and the school has traditionally been a sectional or super-sectional host.
Casey also will face most of its tougher rivals in postseason play, although in seasons past getting Oblong out of their way might have made the Warriors breathe a little easier.
It’s hard for Doug Dahnke not to look ahead.