Entering his second season as the head basketball coach of the Trinity High School team, Mike Valente is very optimistic about this season.
His excitement about the Blazers appears warranted based on the team's impressive 4-1 start. Trinity topped Conant, Prospect, St. Francis and Yorkville to win the York Thanksgiving Tournament.
The Blazers' only loss to date came against Montini – annually one of the top teams in the state.
"We got beat pretty bad against Montini," Valente said. "Montini is such a good team. They played well and we didn't. It was a good experience for our younger girls. It was a good test to find out where our weaknesses are so that we can work on those things to get where we need be."
Trinity returns four starters, including four-year varsity players Lauren Lee and Alex Fanning.
"I would call Lauren a point guard/wing," Valente said. "I think she'll play the wing in college. She does a little bit of everything for us. She's very versatile and we can put her at any spot.
The 5-foot-10 Lee signed with the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Fanning is still weighing her options regarding college basketball.
"Alex is a 6-foot-3 post player," Valente said. "She's unsigned and is going to wait until the spring to sign (with a college). Both Alex and Lauren bring a lot of experience. They were on the team that finished third downstate two years ago."
Sophomores Dayjah Chmielewski and Zyerra Stafford are the team's other two returning starters. Stafford has missed the opening games of the season due to a knee injury.
"We hope to get Zee back within the next two weeks," Valente said. "She's our starting point guard and was all-conference as a freshman. It's really been a big adjustment playing without her in the lineup.
"Dayjah is a big wing. She's really strong and has had some big games already this year. We're looking for her to get better and better."
Highly touted 6-0 freshman Makiyah Williams rounds out the starting lineup at a forward position.
"In one of the York games, she had 24 points and 12 rebounds," Valente said about Williams. "She can be a future McDonald's All-American She should be one of the top players in the state, and I can't see any freshman that's better than Makiyah right now. She's the real deal."
Kelsey McCormack, a 6-3 third-year varsity player, brings both experience and talent to the team.
"Kelsey is coming off a shoulder injury and has missed the start of the season," Valente said. "We hope to get her back this week practicing. She's been cleared but is still having a little tightness."
Senior Kelcie Leyden is a capable point guard.
"Kelcie has been filling in at point guard as a senior in her third varsity season," Valente said. "She's super-athletic and can do a little of everything."
The rest of the bench is young but talented. Valente indicated that there could be as many as five freshmen playing on the varsity.
"Two of my freshmen guards are playing with the varsity due to injury, and they'll probably go back and forth between the freshman and varsity teams," Valente said. "Our freshman class is really strong."
Per usual, Trinity's schedule is shaping up to be a challenging one. The Blazers will participate in the Dundee-Crown Holiday Tournament for the first time. It's one of the best holiday tournaments for local teams.
"We're very excited about starting our participation there." Valente said. "It's one of the longest running Christmas tournaments around. It has some of the best talent in the state and some good teams are going to be there. Dundee-Crown will give us a barometer of where we're at in the season."
Other top opponents for the Blazers this season include East Chicago Central (Indiana) at the Derrill Kipp Games (formerly the McDonald's Shootout) in January at Willowbrook, plus games against crosstown rivals Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest.
In a bit of a scheduling quirk, the Blazers and Friars will meet twice (home and away) during the season. Valente was an assistant coach at Fenwick for six seasons under legendary coach Dave Power
"Dave is one of my best friends," Valente said. "It's such a great rivalry that we decided to schedule a non-conference game against each other. It's great for the neighborhood and always a fun game. A lot of the girls have played each other in grade school."
The Girls Catholic Athletic Conference will feature several top teams as well. Besides Fenwick and Montini, Trinity will also take on Loyola, Mother McAuley and St. Ignatius in conference play.
According to Valente, having such a tough schedule can pay dividends when the state tournament starts in February.
"We're not afraid to play anybody," Valente said. "It's also about good exposure for our players regarding college. These are fun games to play and the girls get excited."
The GCAC used to have a season-ending tournament, but that is no longer the case as of this year. Each team has just five conference games, and Montini has already proven to be the favorite.
"Unless Montini loses, we'll probably be chasing second place," Valente said. "You don't get a day off in our conference. We're familiar with each other, the competition is the best, and it gets us ready for the state tournament."
No matter what the regular-season record looks like, Trinity's goal is to be playing during the last weekend of the season. Valente believes the Blazers are capable of a long post-season run.
"We're young but we have a lot of experience returning," Valente said. "The talent is here. I think we'll get better as the season goes on."