Girls Basketball: Zion-Benton has all the piecesZion girls basketball coach Tanya Johnson (right) makes a point to Syerra Cunningham during practice Monday at the high school. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
High school girls basketball coaching legend Tanya Johnson can tell you how things have changed with the Zion-Benton program from Day 1 of her first year with the Zee-Bees to Day 1 of her fourth.
“I feel better about where we’re at,” she said. “There are expectations now. There is a system, and I think the days of just showing up on the first day of tryouts and not participating in anything in the offseason are gone. In major programs, the kids want to participate in the off-season. They’re doing the extra things. They’re doing the strength training and the conditioning. Not because somebody tells them to do it, but because that’s what you do if you want to be a good program.
“That’s where this program has elevated. The kids are understanding that if you want to compete and do some special things, you have to put more into it than just the basketball season.”
And so it begins.
Two years after a pleasantly surprising second-place finish in the big-school state tournament — a result boosted at least somewhat by the luck of the tournament draw — the reality of girls basketball at Zion-Benton is this:
If the Bees finish second — or better — in this year’s state tournament, it won’t be a surprise and the luck of the draw won’t have anything to do with it.
“If we’re the favorite (in the North Suburban Conference) , you know what? Good for Zion. When I walked in the door, we weren’t the favorite. We were more like the doormat. If we’ve raised the program to the level of respectability, then good for the kids ... the kids who have played and the kids who are here now. That means we’re doing something right,” the coach said.
“My focus is to help the kids be as good as they can be on the court and in the classroom. The thing I’m most proud of about this team at Zion is that every kid is pulling at least a “C” right now. We’ve come a long way. Getting our players to qualify and play in college, that’s a state-championship type of win.”
One of those former Zion-Benton players now playing in college is Octavia Crump, last year’s best player, who is at Illinois State University and on the Redbird team right now.
But almost unbelievably — and this is exactly what happens when a program is rockin’ and rollin’ — the enormous hole left by Crump’s departure was immediately filled by the enormously talented Syerra Cunningham, who spent her first three seasons losing nearly all the time at Waukegan.
Her dad — City of Waukegan alderman Sam Cunningham — may bleed Bulldog purple, but it’s Z-B maroon that’s in his daughter’s blood these days.
Pair her with junior star Sam Rodriguez and about three other ready-for-prime-timers and it’s time to get serious.
“You have to focus on getting better today and work on the things you have to work on because it’s all about the end of the season,” Johnson said. “We can’t fold up the tent because we hit a bump in the road. With the schedule we have — we’re playing in the Montini tournament with a number of really good teams — we want to be able to compete.”