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From the moment a talented junior class came on the scene at the varsity level, VCHS seniors Julianna Banal and Emily Shields have accepted their roles on the Vandalia girls basketball team.
And gracefully so.
"It works," said Banal of being a complementary player on perhaps the best team in the program's history. "We just fit like a puzzle together."
But on Monday night, the spotlight shined brightly upon the Lady Vandals' lone two seniors in the final regular-season home game of their high school careers.
And the subjects of the Lady Vandals' Senior Night responded with perhaps their best individual games of the year.
Banal scored a season-high 17 points and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds, while Shields contributed four assists and three rebounds to the Lady Vandals' 63-37 win over Staunton.
It was a bit ironic that Banal and Shields - who have distinguished themselves more with leadership and team play than numbers - put up some of their best individual stats of the year on their special night.
But it was also fitting that a pair of often overlooked ingredients to the Lady Vandals' success played such keys roles in the team tying the program's single-season win mark of 21.
"They've been a big part of our program all four years they've been here," VCHS coach Mike Butler said. "They're a very valuable part of this team. We're really proud of these kids, and we wish them the best in the future, too."
Banal and Shields' teammates showed their gratitude prior to the game by playing a mix CD featuring the teams favorite songs along with personal well wishes from several Lady Vandals spliced in.
The gesture drove Shields and Banal to tears.
"That was a complete surprise," Shields said. "We had no idea they were gonna do that. So when that came on, it brought tears to our eyes, because we didn't know how much they were really going to miss us. It was really nice."
The emotion seemed to fuel the Lady Vandals early on - and Banal and Shields were right in the middle of a 12-4 run to start the game.
Banal scored four points, grabbed two rebounds and recorded an assist during Vandalia's quick start, while Shields filled her role as an unconventional post playmaker, assisting on a Banal basket in addition to teaming up with her classmate to force a turnover.
Shields would go on to assist Banal on two other baskets later in the game.
"We had had a few connections here and there, a few assists for me, and she made the baskets," Shields said. "That's what I look for; I'm not the big offensive threat. I look to play defense and pass the ball whenever people are open."
Shields found Banal again late in the half for a bank shot that pushed Vandalia's lead to double digits, 30-19, and Banal gave Vandalia a commanding 32-19 halftime lead moments later with bucket off a Cassie Warner feed.
Though Vandalia remained in control throughout the second half, they found themselves in a funk that allowed Staunton to cut a lead that stood at 16 points down to 10 with seven minutes remaining.
But after a timeout discussion with their coach, the Lady Vandals turned up the defensive intensity, which fueled a 21-5 run to close out the game.
"That's what gets us going, and it did tonight, too," said Butler of the Lady Vandals' defense. "There are a lot of distractions when you have something special going on. I think we maybe lost our focus a little, but we played hard and did a good job."
Cearlock led the defensive charge, coming away with four of her season-high 10 steals during the seven-minute span. The Lady Vandals' junior sparkplug also had two blocks down the stretch, and tied Banal for team-high scoring honors with 17 points.
Warner finished in double figures for the seventh straight game as well, pumping in 15 points, while Laura Hobbie chipped in 10 points.
All in all, it was a perfect way for Banal and Shields to cap their regular-season home careers.
"It's fun to win, and playing with those guys has been really fun, because they know how to play together," said Shields of the juniors. "... Playing with these guys has made my senior year my best year."
"It's just been a blast all year," Banal said. "We have a bond that most teams don't have.
"We just think of ourselves as a family more than a team. We're like sisters. If something happened to them, I'd be just as worried as if something had to my own mom or my sister. We're that close."
The Lady Vandals will now focus on closing out the regular season in historic fashion by picking up a program-record 22nd win Friday at Altamont. After coming one win shy of pulling off the same feat during the volleyball season, Banal is chomping at the bit to get another opportunity.
"It's like I'm getting another chance," Banal said. "I'm really looking forward, because I really have a feeling we're going to win Friday. I believe in my team."
The JV Lady Vandals were also victorious against Staunton, rolling to a 39-25 win. Kayla Houston led the way with 10 points, while Rachel Hickerson and Megan Shreve had six, and Amber Durbin had five.
Staunton 11 8 8 10 - 37
Vandalia 19 13 10 21 - 63
Vandalia scoring - Walton 1-5 1-2 3, Cearlock 6-9 4-6 17, Banal 6-12 5-9 17, Warner 4-9 7-10 15, Hobbie 4-9 2-5 10, Durbin 0-1 1-2 1, Shields 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-49 20-34 62
Staunton scoring - Painter 2 4-6 8, Hagtan 2 1-3 5, Hindi 2 0-0 4, Schrader 0 4-4 4, Ray 1 1-2 3, Buffington 0 2-2 2, Newbold 5 1-4 11, Darrah 0 0-2 0. Totals 12-36 13-23 37.
3-point goals - Vandalia 2 (Cearlock 2); Staunton 0. Rebounds - Vandalia 30 (Banal 9, Warner 6, Hobbie 5); Staunton 17. Turnovers - Vandalia 15, Staunton 27.
The good news: Vandalia has earned a No. 3 overall seed in the Effingham-St. Anthony Class 2A Sectional, and will be the No. 2 seed in its own regional, which begins Monday.
The bad news: The Lady Vandals quest for their first regional title since 1993 will be very tough.
Vandalia will open up postseason play against No. 5 seed Effingham-St. Anthony Thursday at 7:30 p.m. If the Lady Vandals win, their reward will be top-seeded T-Town - ranked seventh in the last Associated Press 2A poll - in Friday's 7:30 p.m. championship.
"It's going to be a tough road," Butler said. "People want to talk about T-Town being in there, but St. Anthony's also a solid team. We'll have to play well on Thursday night to advance."
Home-court advantage could be an X-factor for the Lady Vandals if they can get a solid fan turnout.
"We need a big crowd here next week for those games to make it a home-court advantage," Butler said. "That's a big thing."
Last Thursday's Game
Pana 51, Vandalia 40
The Lady Vandals gave the top-ranked Class 2A team in the state a scare, as a Hobbie putback tied the game at 38 early in the fourth quarter.
But the combination of a raucous home crowd, Senior Night and 14 fourth-quarter points by all-stater Olivia Lett proved too much for the Lady Vandals to overcome, as the Lady Panthers closed out an SCC-East regular-season title with a 13-2 run down the stretch.
Lett finished with 29 points for Pana, which was ranked No. 1 in the latest Associated Press Class 2A poll.
Cearlock scored 16 points for Vandalia, but the Lady Vandals saw their 11-game winning streak come to an end.
Cassie Warner scored in double figures for the sixth straight game, pumping in 13 points.
Vandalia 10 12 10 8 - 40
Pana 9 17 7 18 - 51
Vandalia scoring - Banal 1 2-2 4, Cearlock 4 6-7 16, Hobbie 2 0-2 4, Walton 1 1-2 3, Warner 4 5-7 13. Totals 12 14-20 40.
Pana scoring - Alde 1 1-2 3, Harbert 2 4-8 9, Lett 11 4-4 29, Radford 4 0-0 8, Siegert 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 9-14 51.
Pana 51, Vandalia 20
Vandalia scoring - Houston 5, Durbin 4, Hickerson 4, Donaldson 2, Dodson 2, Stunkel 2.
Vandalia 78, Litchfield 54
It seems a different Lady Vandal steps up in the scoring column every time VCHS takes the court.
But last Wednesday, just about every Lady Vandal stepped up.
Five Vandalia players scored in double figures, as VCHS put a season-high 78 points on the board in its second 20-plus point pasting of SCC-East rival Litchfield in as many nights.
Hobbie and Warner led a balanced attack with 16 points apiece, while Walton added 15 points and Banal and Cearlock had 12 points apiece.
The Lady Vandals pulled away to a 15-point halftime lead with a 19-7 advantage in the second quarter. They extended their advantage to 18 points entering the final frame before exploding for 24 points in the final eight minutes.
The JV Lady Vandals were also victorious, 51-47, as Houston led the way with a season-high 26 points. Stunkel and Hickerson added eight, while Brittney Bennett had five and Donaldson had four.
Vandalia 18 19 14 27 - 78
Litchfield 15 7 11 21 - 54
Vandalia scoring - Walton 4 7-10 15, Houston 1 1-2 3, Hobbie 7 2-6 16, Cearlock 5 1-4 12, Banal 6 0-0 12, Shields 1 0-0 2, Warner 6 4-5 16, Hickerson 0 2-2 2. Totals 30 17-29 78.