Girls basketball: Eight is enough, Romeoville putting up a season for the ages

Spartans just wrapped up 16-0 run through Southwest Prairie

Romeoville's Laila Houseworth (20) goes in for a lay up during basketball game between Romeoville at Plainfield East. Feb 8, 2024.

Before the season began, Romeoville girls basketball coach Devin Bates did what he had always done in the past. He asked the girls on his team to write down their goals for the season, both as individuals and as a team.

This year’s group of Spartans was different.

“They came to me and asked if we could just do team goals,” Bates said. “They have put in a lot of work, and they wanted this season to be special. They were all focused on what they could do as a team. None of them cared about their individual stats.

“That’s the way they play. No one cares who scores.”

The goals are starting to get met.

They hit one Thursday with a 66-53 win over Plainfield East that secured a perfect 16-0 record in the Southwest Prairie Conference. That victory also tied the school record for wins in a season with 27, the same number as the 1986-87 team.

“We had a good idea that we were going to have a good year,” senior guard Emily Gabrelcik said. “We put in a lot of work, it’s our final season together, and we want to leave it all on the floor.”

Senior forward Laila Houseworth echoed Gabrelcik’s thoughts.

“This [the unbeaten conference title] was one of our goals,” she said. “A couple of years ago, I didn’t think we would be at a place like this, but we have kept working hard.”

Romeoville's Kazaria Smith (2) battles for possession during basketball game between Romeoville at Plainfield East. Feb 8, 2024.

The Spartans (27-3) have been doing most of their best work on the defensive end of the court. Their relentless pressure on the ball gives other teams fits and often results in Romeoville getting a turnover and turning it into a transition basket.

The main disrupter is Gabrelcik, who uses her quickness, long arms and court awareness to jump into passing lanes and deflect a pass. That deflection then either ends up as a steal or it forces the other team to reset their offense. And if the ball does get into the lane, the Spartans have seniors Jadea Johnson and Houseworth ready with size and speed. Sophomore guard Kazaria Smith and senior guard Jaylen Zachary add to the mix, and all five Spartans crash the boards.

“The work ethic on these girls has been amazing,” Bates said. “We knew our numbers were low. We only have eight girls on the roster, but we pushed them hard in the summer, ran some stadium bleachers. A lot of stadium bleachers. And they called me names they probably shouldn’t have.

“But they have all embraced the grind. They continue to work hard and improve. They wanted the conference title, and they got it. They want the regional title, and now they get to try and go get it.”

There is one person who did see this type of season coming.

“I knew when our class got to this high school that we were going to change the program,” senior forward Jadea Johnson said. “We have very good athletes. We’ve been playing together for six years now, and that helps us on the floor. We had good summer and fall league seasons. I know that’s not the same as the regular season, but we felt like we had something.

“There’s only eight of us, so we all play big key roles. Everyone brings something different to the table, and we all know what that is.”

Despite the team’s modest roster numbers and grueling off-season runs, the Spartans don’t do a lot of in-season conditioning in terms of running sprints, etc.

“Our conditioning is playing,” Johnson said. “We don’t do any sprints in practice. We go out and work hard on defense. If we get a turnover, we will run for a transition basket. But if we don’t and we have to play in our half-court offense, we can take some time to rest then.”

The Spartans begin play in the Sandburg Regional this week, taking on Chicago Marist at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Romeoville's Jadea Johnson (13) puts up a shot during basketball game between Romeoville at Plainfield East. Feb 8, 2024.