After three straight wins to open the 2017-18 season, Rock Falls looked to be the class of the area.
The Rockets had all the pieces to repeat as regional champs, but their path changed drastically early on after a season-ending knee injury to star point guard Abbee Sigel.
Struggles came quickly in the weeks after, but a near-total overhaul in playing style salvaged Rock Falls’ hopes of hoisting another regional plaque.
“As a team, we all had to step up to replace her,” junior guard Molly Buck said. “We couldn’t truly replace Abbee, but we could do our best to mesh together.”
Sigel sustained the injury in the Rockets’ first loss of the season at home during the Sauk Valley Shootout against Dixon. Head coach Eric Wolf was initially focused on trying to beat the Duchesses, and after the loss thought Sigel may have a chance at a return around Christmas time.
Rock Falls adapted to win two of its next three games, but found their floor with a nine-game losing streak that started Dec. 1, 2017 and lasted until Dec. 27 at the State Farm Classic. Sigel received news of torn ligaments, meaning a comeback was out of the question.
“It took a little while for our team to realize that we don’t need a superstar,” Wolf said. “We needed players to come together. I think for the first six or seven games, everybody was playing individually. Once they realized that it wasn’t working, they came together and got us going in the right direction.”
“I don’t think anybody realized that we had to start all over,” Buck said. “We had to set up different roles.”
Losses and turnovers piled up, but so did the level of competition. Rock Falls played tough 3A foes in Kaneland, Hononegah and Richwoods, as well as 4A squads in Moline and Naperville Central.
“We set high expectations for us the day we got beat against Kaneland last year,” Wolf said. “And that’s why we set the schedule the way we do. It’s nice for the girls to gain confidence. We went to playing team basketball.”
It was downstate that Rock Falls eventually found its groove. The Rockets went 2-2 at State Farm, and players found roles that suited their individual playing styles and the team’s best interests.
“As soon as we started playing together and shared the ball, we were really good,” senior guard Taylor Hoefler said. “We realized we all work really good together.”
Freshman Abi Peyton became a primary ballhandler, Buck became a steady backcourt presence, sophomore Elise Moeller rounded out her game to become a threat on both the inside and outside, Kenzie Olson controlled offensive and defensive rebounds, and Hoefler started to knock down shots from the perimeter. The result was six straight wins in the Big Northern, as Rock Falls ultimately ended the season 13-12 overall and 7-3 in conference play.
“It was kind of a realization for me to step up,” Hoefler said. “Since it’s my last year, I’ve tried to make it the best I can.”
A new in-game goal was developed to get balanced scoring up and down the lineup. Freshmen Karli and Kylie Fischbach, as well as classmate Peyton, added speed to Rock Falls’ defense off the bench, which gave the Rockets a glimpse at seasons to come.
“We brought up three freshmen, and that’ll give them another year of experience,” Buck said. “They’ll understand how the varsity level is and what to expect.”
“I think it’ll benefit us, even though we can’t replace an Abbee Sigel-type player,” Wolf said. “It made girls change the way they played, more as a group than an individual. When you lose an All-Stater, you need to find different ways to win.”
Rock Falls will face regional host Marengo tomorrow in a 3A regional semifinal, which has Wolf and his team excited to face new competition. A season filled with ups and downs figures to prepare the Rockets as they enter postseason play.
“We don’t look at it as a regional game,” Hoefler said. “We look at it as a normal game. We’ve been through some stressful games, and I think that’s really going to help us for the postseason.”
“I’d say we have to have more focus,” Wolf said. “This is why we set up the schedule the way we do. When we play a big game, we’re not freaking out. We have to continue to do what we do, but take it up a notch and see where it goes.”