By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
Partway through the Illinois girls all-stars' first practice for the McDonald's/Herald-Whig Classic, Breanne Begeman felt tired.
Illinois all-stars coach Eric Orne, from Quincy Notre Dame, included some of his QND players in practice with his all-stars to get a full group on the court, and he set the tone with an intense practice.
Begeman asked a couple of the Lady Raiders if that type of practice was typical.
"They practice really hard, and the first day we came in, we were like, ‘Do you guys do this every day?'" Begeman said. "They were like, ‘This is just warm-ups.' … After that first practice, I got home and I was just laying on the couch tired."
Begeman was glad she felt like that, however. It showed her that her team was going to be prepared to take on Missouri at 5 p.m. Saturday at Quincy University's Pepsi Arena.
"We're going to be in better shape than the Missouri girls," said Begeman, a forward who averaged 14.5 points and 9.1 rebounds for Unity last season. "All of us, we're out there to win."
As much as the Illinois girls are eager to uphold their favorite status, the Missouri girls are out to prove they can be a formidable foe.
"I think we're all very well-aware that we're the underdogs," Marion County guard Kaelyn Spratt said. "I'm sure we'll compete in this game, honestly, because I think we're underrated a little bit."
Missouri will have to deal with QND duo Kassidy Gengenbacher, a 5-foot-10 guard who has signed with NCAA Division II Lindenwood, and Jordan Frericks, a 6-2 forward who has signed with Missouri. They led QND to three consecutive state titles, including a 30-0 finish and a Class 3A crown in March. Frericks is the two-time Herald-Whig Player of the Year and finished third in Illinois Ms. Basketball voting this year.
"I'm just glad they're on our side so we don't have to go against them," Begeman said. "Kudos to the Missouri girls for playing (against) them all night. Kassidy with her shooting and Jordan with her all-around game in the post, we know we can count on them."
Frericks wasn't at Orne's practices this week, as she was in Columbia, Mo., preparing for her first season at Mizzou, but Orne said she will be on the floor Saturday.
"I'm so excited she's going to come back and play one last game here," Gengenbacher said. "We always know where each other are on the court. I feel like we can communicate without words being spoken. It's just so easy and almost effortless to be on the same court with her."
Yet, Illinois' team will be more than a two-player show. Western's Rachel Motley and Pittsfield's Shea O'Brien join Gengenbacher as 3-point sharpshooters.
Unity's Brooklyn Moore, Central-Southeastern's Torie Conover and Liberty-Payson's Maranda Neisen provide physical presences in the post. Quincy High School's Arai'ya Dade offers speed. Begemand and Frericks are proven scorers from midrange or in the paint.
Orne put his team through practice every day from Sunday through Friday except for Wednesday.
"I think our work ethic is what I'm excited for and might pose some challenges for Missouri," said Orne, who is 1-2 all-time as a coach in the all-star game. "I certainly learned from the two losses to be prepared. It is a big deal, and for a lot of these girls maybe it's the biggest crowd they'll play in front of, so I want them to be prepared."
Orne installed QND's full-court press in hopes that his team's defense will set the tone.
"You see it works for (QND) during the regular season, so hopefully we have the same success rate as they did and get up and run down the floor a lot and force a lot of turnovers," O'Brien said.
If Missouri can break the press, it should get up and down the court quickly, too.
"We're very fast," Spratt said. "We're guard-heavy I'd say."
Missouri has plenty of athleticism. Spratt, Monroe City's Carly Spalding and Kiette Mundy and Palmyra's Megan Hooper and Evie Miles all won state medals in track and field last month.
"I guarantee we'd win a track meet," Missouri all-stars coach Cody Leonard, from Monroe City, said.
Missouri also has a winning pedigree. Miles and Alexis Van Nostrand played on the Palmyra softball teams that finished in the top four in Class 2 in each of the last three seasons. Palmyra then reached the quarterfinals in Class 3 hoops in March. Spratt helped Marion County win three Class 1 state trophies in basketball.
"Having that mindset of winning helps a ton," Spratt said.
Missouri simply doesn't have much size. Scotland County's Megan Creek and Hooper, both 5-10, are Missouri's tallest players. They'll join Canton forward Courtney Baalman, who is 5-9, in the post.
"You look at the talent that the Illinois team has, they should be the favorite," Leonard said. "They have no reason not to be the favorite. At the same time, these girls are all-stars, too. They're going to go out there and compete and give it everything they've got."