Tia Poulakidas had a flashback before taking the court Thursday.
It was the final home game of the 6-foot center’s Neuqua Valley career.
“When I was standing during the national anthem, it brought me back to when I was a freshman,” she said. “I don’t want to say I wasn’t a useful player, but I didn’t go in and impact games.
“I was just like a bench player, subbing in for someone for 30 seconds. And now I’m out here leading the team, playing with great girls who, even after I’m gone, I know they are still going to be my family.”
As one of the Wildcats’ three seniors — and the only one who starts — Poulakidas is the leader of a team hitting its stride at the right moment.
“Every game she’s everywhere,” junior forward Kylee Norkus said. “She’s a big contributor in the post, getting those huge rebounds. She’s just a natural leader as well. She’s just been a role model to me since day one.”
Poulakidas showed the way again and made sure her final performance in front of Neuqua Valley’s fans was a memorable one. The Rochester recruit registered 11 points, four rebounds and four steals as the Wildcats routed Waubonsie Valley 69-41 in Naperville to clinch at least a share of the DuPage Valley Conference championship.
It’s the first conference title for the Wildcats (18-10, 8-1) since 2016. Waubonsie Valley (19-6, 5-4) was eliminated from contention.
“Coming into this game, there were a lot of emotions, especially for me, being as it’s my last home game,” Poulakidas said. “I wanted to come in and make our statement.
“We think teams still weren’t respecting us, so we wanted to show that this is who we are.”
Poulakidas has always been a team-first player, and that’s how her teammates roll as well. They just missed putting all five starters in double figures.
Junior guard Caitlin Washington tallied a game-high 23 points, 11 of which came during a 19-4 run in the third quarter that boosted a 41-29 halftime lead to 60-33. Norkus, who had a game-high 11 rebounds, and freshman guard Nalia Clifford each added 11 points, while junior point guard Zoe Navarro had eight points and three assists.
Senior guard Taylor Curry scored 13 points to pace the Warriors, whose five-game winning streak was snapped.
“If we were to lose this game, the conference championship would have been up in the air,” Poulakidas said. “None of us wanted that to happen, so we just came in with a lot of energy, making sure that they don’t out-energy us on our own court.”
While Poulakidas rarely leads the Wildcats in scoring, she usually is the team’s engine.
“Tia is big for us this year, just her leadership in the middle,” Washington said. “She’s pretty much commanding the whole team and bringing everyone together.”
That was evident by her aggressive play Thursday.
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“When I was a freshman, I definitely wasn’t taking it to the hoop, getting double-teamed in the post, finishing and-ones,” Poulakidas said. “That wasn’t happening. Now it’s my strength. I think this year that’s shown a lot.”
Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams sees the same thing.
“When she was a freshman, she was lanky, couldn’t figure out which way to run, was kind of unbalanced,” Williams said. “But she kept working at it. She had some injuries, so she’s really a year and a half behind everybody else. But she’s catching up pretty doggone quick at the right time.”
It has paid off with a conference championship. That’s a feat her brother John, the Neuqua Valley boys program’s career scoring leader who plays at Yale, never accomplished.
But Poulakidas believed the Wildcats could do it ever since they snapped Naperville North’s 40-game DVC winning streak with a 42-41 win on Dec. 1.
“It means everything,” she said. “The last three years that I’ve been on the team, we haven’t been much of a threat in the conference. When we beat North, that should have told everybody, ‘Don’t mess with us.’”
Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.