Taris Thornton (left) and Sophie Sullivan (right)

Thornton and Sullivan helped Montini to a third-place trophy last season; now at Willowbrook, they are waiting to take the court

The 2020-21 Willowbrook girls basketball team should have played several games by now. Of course, this hasn’t been a typical year. The Warriors, along with every other high school girls and boys basketball team in Illinois, have been sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s uncertain if there will be any basketball played during the 2020-21 school year.

If the Warriors do take the court this season, they are going to be very strong. Senior Stephanie Dasbach—Willowbrook’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season—is one of the team’s standout returning players. Dasbach recently signed a letter of intent to continue her academic and basketball careers at Winona State University.

This season’s other key players include senior Annemarie Knudtson, who made four 3-point shots and scored a team-leading 18 points in the Warriors’ season-ending game—an overtime loss to Batavia in an IHSA Class 4A regional semifinal on Feb. 18. Senior Grace Tumilty, who missed her entire junior season due to a knee injury, is ready to play this year. This season’s team also includes some highly regarded underclass players.

The Warriors’ most intriguing addition this season is a duo of elite players who have transferred from Montini Catholic High School. The two former Broncos who are now at Willowbrook are senior Taris Thornton and junior Sophie Sullivan. Last month, Thornton signed a letter of intent to attend Eastern Illinois University, where she will play for the Panthers’ women’s basketball team.

Thornton and Sullivan helped guide the 2019-20 Montini team to a 33-5 record. The Broncos earned a trip downstate to the IHSA Class 3A state semifinals at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal. Montini claimed the third-place trophy at the state tournament. One day after losing to Simeon—the eventual Class 3A state champion—Montini finished its season with a victory over Springfield’s Lanphier High School in the third-place contest, which took place on March 7.

Less than one week after that game, the pandemic dominated the nation’s headlines. At the end of classes on March 13, all K-12 schools in Illinois closed to in-person instruction. The state’s school buildings remained closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

In May, Jason Nichols stepped down as Montini’s girls basketball coach. Nichols guided the Broncos to four state championships in his 17 seasons as the program’s head coach. Nichols left Montini to become the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Morton College in Cicero.

Nichols’s exit from Montini triggered an exodus of the program’s top players. While Sullivan and Thornton transferred to Willowbrook, junior Tatiana Thomas moved on to Bolingbrook High School. Taylor Charles, another current junior who was a key contributor to the 2019-20 Broncos, is now at Burlington Central High School.

Sullivan and Thornton are both familiar with Willowbrook head coach Terry Harrell. As grade-schoolers, the two new Warriors played for Harrell in the West Suburban Sharks Basketball Club.

In addition to playing together at Montini, Sullivan and Thornton have been teammates in the Illinois Lady Lightning—a girls basketball program that competes in various leagues and summer Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) contests.

All of the pieces are in place for a successful Willowbrook girls basketball season. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought so much, including high school athletics, to a halt.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Thornton of the COVID-19 shutdown that’s prevented the start of the 2020-21 season, which should have begun in mid-November. “I hate it; it’s horrible. It’s definitely way better to be out there playing games. I’m just trying to work on training and getting stronger. That’s all I can really do.”

While the shutdown has been especially tough on seniors, it’s also been costly to elite junior players, who should have been able to showcase their talents to collegiate coaches at club events during the summer of 2020. Those coaches of college programs would also be tracking juniors during what should be the current high school season.

“The most important time for recruiting is your junior year,” said Sullivan, who noted that she has had some contact with colleges, but won’t be making a commitment anytime soon. “There wasn’t much exposure this summer. There were some AAU games in July, but college coaches weren’t allowed.”

Like Thornton, Sullivan is upset that the pandemic has so far prevented the Warriors from an exciting season.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Sullivan. “We all would work really well together. “We haven’t had any contact days. I haven’t met the team in person. We’ve just done some Zoom calls. I haven’t even been in the school [Willowbrook] since I’ve transferred. It’s not looking good at the moment, but there’s not much we can do about it. We’ll just keep working out on our own.”

Thornton and Sullivan both noted how they are looking forward to bringing the intensity of Nichols’s Montini program to Willowbrook. As Broncos, Thornton and Sullivan played a brutally tough schedule that included intense post-season competition. In addition to playing in hard-fought games, they battled in energized practices for a coach who demanded excellence.

“They’ve been playing with each other,” said Thornton of her new teammates at Willowbrook. “They would have to get used to how tough we played [at Montini].”

Sullivan, who played for Nichols for two seasons, agreed with Thornton’s assessment.

“I totally get what she’s saying,” said Sullivan in discussing the influence of Nichols and the Montini program. “There was intensity at every practice. It was a different schedule and a different style of play. It was just nice to get coached by him [Nichols] for two years.”

 

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