Indians' season has bittersweet finish

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Something interesting has been happening here in the last few days.

I've been kind of, for lack of a better term, a little bummed out.

This is a rare occurrence. I've been blessed, ever since I can remember, to be a person that wakes up every day in a good mood. It helps, of course, to have a job that I love. But even when I didn't have that situation, my first thoughts of every day are positive ones.

I am a creature of habit. One of the first things I think about every single morning is this: What are my sports teams doing next?

There is a list that I go through, almost OCD-like, in my brain. Let's see: Packers don't play a meaningful game until September. Brewers are in the midst of a fun spring training with high expectations. Bucks are incredible, playing the best basketball of my lifetime. Iowa State has two NCAA-bound teams that has helped shorten this brutal winter for me.

Next, my kids: Let's see: Reagan (12) has five games this week along with a couple practices. Sawyer (10) is just now finished for the season with hoops, and I have another year or so before Amaya (8) gets going.

Then, my prep teams, and this is where the source of my mini-depression sets in.

The Hononegah girls basketball season is over.

First, the good news: I have two teams left. Turner should win on Thursday against Edgerton, then would likely be a significant underdog to an outstanding Martin Luther team on Saturday.

Parkview plays a beatable Belleville team in Evansville Thursday. What a story they've been this year. It's probably my biggest regret of the season that I wasn't able to see them least not yet.

But the fact is, my seventh or eighth thought of the day for the last month or so has been "When do the Hononegah girls play next? "

I covered the final nine games of the Indians season, which of course included their glorious run to a third-place finish. But I guess more than that, I'd been thinking about the potential of that team since last year.

I'm a basketball-first kind of guy. I don't think I've ever been shy about that. As excited as I get about teams in other sports making a run to state, nothing compares to basketball. Nothing gets a crowd, student section, school or community going like a great basketball team. And I knew this winter would be rough. And boy, you guys, was it rough.

I didn't cover Hononegah much at all during the regular season. Went down to see them lose in the suburbs twice (though I saw Jordan score her 2,000th point and saw two really good games), and caught a few others. But mostly, who needs to show up for a 74-38 game? So I was in gyms across the area, watching teams mostly struggle. There were good things, of course. Reagan Courier was awesome for Big Foot. I really liked watching the Turner girls. Brodhead was so scrappy and fun to watch. But mostly, it was a struggle (besides the Turner boys).

As the postseason grew nearer, I knew that I was going to ride with the Indians. Where they went, I went. They took me to such exotic locales as Rockton, Belvidere, and Streamwood. Finally, they took me to Normal. And I got a free night in a hotel by myself and WHEW let me tell you I haven't slept that well in 12 years.

The ride to Normal was as smooth as could be. A blowout over Guilford. Hamsphire tried and ultimately failed to slow the Indians down. Crystal Lake South was just overmatched. Boylan just didn't have the talent to stay with the Indians, either.

It was such a sweet post-game celebration after the Indians beat the Titans. A combination of elation, relief and pure joy. I'll never forget the smiles on the faces of the players, students and parents. And what an atmosphere! So great.

Then there was Streamwood. All of you already know what a homer I am. But I don't ever recall pulling for a team more than I pulled for the Indians that night. I really didn't care what happened once we got to Normal (or so I told myself...more on that later), but I just wanted them to get there so badly.

Everything had opened up for Hononegah. In years past, there was always a big bad wolf waiting for them down the line. Boylan, Huntley, or even a Geneva team that the Indians never quite got around to facing.

This year, they were the wolf. They just had to not screw it up. And boy oh boy, they sure didn't.

My favorite on-court moments of the entire run were Jordan's two steals at the end of the third quarter. They extended the lead to seven, and the Indians cruised from there. Electricity flowed through the Hononegah side heading into the fourth quarter. That's it. They were going to do it.

The pep rally with a gym full of students Thursday was awesome. The game Friday night, well, it wasn't. It was bad. Maine West was great. Undefeated for a reason. It was pretty easy to get over.

But then...12-0 happened. Saturday night, the Indians trailed Benet Academy 12-0, and it appeared to all that we were headed for another blowout loss. I was ready to write my "Hey, fourth place is still awesome) (and it would have been) story, when the Indians turned into...the Indians. A couple of steals, and a couple of treys, and they were off.

After taking the lead, they never trailed. It was beautiful to watch. The players, coaches, parents and fans were so happy after the game. As it turned out, it DID make a difference what happened in Normal. Saturday night turned an amazing experience in Normal to one filled with joy. As memories slowly fade from Friday night's debacle against the undefeated state champions, forever strong will the recollection of that comeback win, that third-place trophy and the celebration that followed.

Sunday was a time for celebration, too. The welcome-home bash went off as planned, with an adoring crowd cheering the team's every exhausted move.

It was also a time to bid farewell to the best team I've ever covered, and I think that gets to the root of my downbeat mood.

Because as it turned out, it wasn't just watching them play that I'll miss. It's the relationships. There's the coaches, among my favorite groups in any sport. There's the parents, grandparents, and siblings. People I have talked to many times over the past weeks and years.

But mostly, it's the players. Of course, some of these kids have gone from being players I've covered for my job to being friends, who happen to play basketball. And I'll keep in touch with them, go to their graduation parties, follow them on Instagram and wish them a Happy Birthday, all the things people do these days.

I'll go to watch Jordan play at Marquette, I'll heckle Cali when Iowa State beats Iowa next year.

But it won't ever be the same, and for whatever reason, it's hitting me a little harder with this group than most.

I've said this many times over the last week, but I'll say it again: To Jordan, Cali, Hannah, Kersh, and yes, this girl Aeris, thank you for taking me on an amazing ride.

To Jules, Alison, Kiyah, Rylie and the rest, I can't wait to see what you do next year and beyond.

But now that I've written this, I'm going to cheer up a bit and stop being sad that it's over, and instead smile because it happened.

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