MIKE NIETO: 'Thoughts?' and 'Go get some oxygen'

2014-03-06T19:00:00Z 2014-03-07T01:39:08Z MIKE NIETO: 'Thoughts?' and 'Go get some oxygen'Mike Nieto Prep Beat nwitimes.com
March 06, 2014 7:00 pm  • 

CHICAGO HEIGHTS | The first official day of girls basketball practice saw the defending Class 4A state girls basketball champion Marian Catholic Spartans  carrying a binder into practice.

New Marian Catholic coach Dan Murray had them put them off to the side. These were not notes from a world history or composition class. They were basketball notes.

The girls got used to carrying them around and it was more than a playbook. New coach. New system.

"We had a test a few weeks ago and we missed 24 total (questions)," senior Ashton Millender said at Tuesday's practice. "We had to run one (known as 'suicides') for each question missed. As a team."

Millender missed just one question, but she and teammates ran from baseline to-free-throw line and back together.

What was good about this year's team as they get ready to try and win back-to-back state titles is they never talked about last year. Through a busy schedule, they focused on this year.

Coach Annie Byrne stepped down in late July and Murray, who had coached at Immaculate Conception (now IC Catholic Prep) and Lisle was named a few weeks later.

While he inherited a great and talented group of kids, nothing is given. Byrne took over in 2005 for Shannon Reidy, who built the Spartans into a power. The players had to adjust a new coach and new style. The same was true for this year.

"I never really practiced with them until that first day, because I got the job so late," Murray said. "It took us some time to really get to know each other, know our roles."

Those long trips to Tennessee in November, trips to Indianapolis and St. Louis helped bring them closer.

"We had to just get to know him as a person," Millender said. "It is an adjustment when you get a new coach."

They got used to his sayings of "Thoughts?" when he wrapped up a postgame talk or when someone yawned at practice: "Go get some oxygen."

What happened was Murray and his staff of Tonishea Mack, Mark D'Apice and Ian Payne made sure everyone had the same goal. Part of the success is the girls bought into playing together for a common goal.

They are two wins away from that goal and a tough Whitney Young team awaits, looking to avenge last year's semifinal loss. Marian has been there, but the team knows that means nothing. What happens tonight counts, and the Spartans know every move they make will count. They have to shut down the Dolphins' inside game with good guard play. Marian has shot very well throughout the postseason, but they will have to work for every shot.

They will have to adhere to another of Murray's sayings: "Five girls playing as one."

This column is solely the writer's opinion. Reach him at mike.nieto@nwi.com.

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