By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
NORMAL, Ill. — Mary Beth Hugenberg's smile easily could have illuminated the hallway near Doug Collins Court at Redbird Arena. There was no hiding her delight.
Hugenberg understood the Quincy Notre Dame girls basketball team had just delivered an emphatic statement.
With a 62-45 victory over Vernon Hills in the Class 3A state championship game Saturday, the Lady Raiders proved bumping up a class was no obstacle.
"We had a lot of haters last year," Hugenberg said. "When we got brought up to 3A, then we had doubters. It felt so good to prove to everyone we had what it takes in 3A. The level of competition in 3A was high, and we had to step it up to take control."
The Lady Raiders did more than that.
QND won its seven postseason games by an average margin of 27.3 points per game. The Lady Raiders became the first team in Illinois High School Association girls basketball history to win back-to-back state titles in different classes and the fourth to win three consecutive crowns.
QND won its fifth title in program history and finished 30-0 to clinch its first perfect season since 1983.
Senior all-staters Jordan Frericks and Kassidy Gengenbacher also found the perfect ending. Gengenbacher scored a game-high 20 points and Frericks added 14, closing their careers with a 124-5 record, three state championships and one second-place trophy.
"It was a lot of fun," said Frericks, who helped QND extend its winning streak to 53 games. "The past two were special also. It was fun to end it the right way with Kassidy and (senior) Abby (Grawe)."
Vernon Hills (31-3) was the latest in a series of teams to be buried by the Lady Raiders' energy. QND forced three turnovers in the first 90 seconds, racing to 9-0 advantage. Cougars center Meri Bennett-Swanson scored on a layup to snap the drought with 5 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first quarter.
"I think they come out a little harder than we did," Cougars coach Paul Brettner said. "I think they got out to a lead, and we couldn't get back to zero because of that. If we could have played them even early, it may have been a whole different basketball game."
Forcing eight turnovers allowed the Lady Raiders to take a 15-2 lead with 2:41 remaining in the first quarter, but QND's foul trouble aided Vernon Hills in keeping the game close. Frericks headed to the bench after picking up her foul with 4:52 left in the first quarter.
Vernon Hills responded by closing the first quarter on an 11-1 run before cutting the lead to 16-13 with 6:57 left in the second quarter on a layup by Lauren Webb, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
"We slacked on defense for a little bit," Kassidy Gengenbacher said. "We weren't calling our screens. Once we got calm again and got our composure back, we were able to stop their run and we went on a run. ... We had to stay calm, and we did that to get our game back."
After Kristen Gengenbacher, who finished with 14 points, made two layups to extend the lead to 20-13, Cougars guard Sydney Sykes responded with two 3-pointers to cut the lead to 20-19 with 4:14 left before halftime.
QND coach Eric Orne knew where to look for a big shot.
"We jumped out to a big lead and wanted to make sure we continued it, but at the same time we knew it was going to be difficult," Orne said. "We got great plays and driving plays by Kristen Gengenbacher, and to be honest with you, one of the biggest shots was by ‘Big-shot Kass.' We ran her off a couple screens, and she hit that big three."
Kassidy Gengenbacher drained a 3-pointer on the Lady Raiders' next possession — one of six she made — and the Cougars never trimmed QND's lead to fewer than four points the rest of the game. QND took a 30-23 lead into halftime.
Countering Vernon Hills' size was difficult at times. The Cougars had a 30-21 rebounding advantage and used their size to muscle the lead down to 37-33 with 1:57 left in the third quarter.
Ratcheting up its defense in the fourth quarter, QND attacked the rim and got to the free-throw line to seal the win.
"We couldn't do much with their size," Orne said. "We wanted to spread them out a little bit. We tried to be quicker and take them one-on-one if we could. We did that. Then we made free throws at the end to clinch it."
In contrast to Hugenberg's joy, Kristen Gengenbacher couldn't stop crying.
She knew the face of QND basketball was about to change with her older sister, Kassidy, and Frericks about to depart.
And this group has nothing left to prove.
"This is the best one yet," she said. "It's really emotional for me because it is Kassidy, Jordan and Abby's last game with us. I'm trying to stay numb so I don't cry. … Just seeing my family and friends out there, everyone in the city of Quincy just supporting us. You don't find that much in other places. It's a special school and family."