By Ken De Laat
And not only are our Lions playing at the Breslin for the D2 title we have our neighbor to the south Kent City going for it all in D3 and Fowler, the alma mater of not only Newaygo Superintendent Peg Mathis but also my Lifetime Spousal Companion Lil, is competing for the D4 crown.
But back to our Lions.
Newaygo arrived here courtesy of a 6 game run through the tourney facing down some of the best teams in the state.
Their win over Country Day, a school with a long and storied history of capturing state titles, was typical of how the Lions win.
Here’s what Country Day Coach Jerica Williams said after they snapped her team’s 9 game win streak and halted their own march to Breslin.
“They remind me of the 'Hoosiers' team, where, like, they’ll sneak up on you. They’re not very big, but they are super-efficient. They don’t take a lot of bad shots. They play together. I don’t think they out-rebounded us, but it felt like they did. And that makes them so tough.
”And they took us out of what we wanted to do.”
The Lions were masterful Wednesday. They never let up for a single second of play and absolutely hounded the Jackets all afternoon.
And now for the final chapter in what has been a dream season for Newaygo. An undefeated conference schedule and the title as a go with. The District trophy, the two wins over ranked and undefeated teams to snare a Regional crown and now the victories in the Quarters and Semis.
And here is the last piece of that dream...
The Raiders slapped the only loss on the Lion record this season and what better place to avenge that 38-31 defeat than a win in the state finals?
But once again, it won’t come easy. Guilford and Bower give the Raiders a lot of firepower and their pressure defense is formidable.
And they, unlike the other teams that have taken the floor against Newaygo, have beaten the Lions.
But it is awful tough to beat a good team twice in a season.
And Newaygo is a very, very good team.
Here’s what struck me most about these Lions on Wednesday.
Their approach to the game.
-They came to this matchup as they do all of them. Mentally ready to take the floor and unwavering from their pre game warmups, performing them as a preparation for the competition ahead of them.
-They do not get rattled. At least I haven’t seen it yet. Behind or ahead they play with the same intensity, never looking as though they are panicked or even slightly disturbed at what’s happening on the scoreboard early on. They just go to work every game, every minute.
-While they may face teams with more talent they are collectively as a team one of the strongest squads I’ve seen in many years. This is a team that absolutely feeds off each other and the way they respond as a cohesive unit makes each of the players better.
-They won’t be intimidated. While all play in this tournament has been physical none were more so than the game with Country Day. Jaylee Long took a pretty severe whack to the face, Emmerson Goodin ended up falling upside down to the floor in a scrum for a rebound and Jaxi Long was pushed, nudged, shoved and grabbed as the Jackets tried to keep her away from the ball. None of it mattered much to any of them. They just play on.
And most of all...
-There is absolute and undeniable belief in themselves. While others may have been surprised at their accomplishments this season they were not. After last season they knew they belonged here and this season they made that crystal clear.
Coach Thomasma after the Wednesday win: “This is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I don’t care if you’re a traditional power or not, this is not easy to do. Sometimes you have to win not playing your best. Sometimes you win playing your best. These players have that mindset. That championship mindset.
“We’ve had teams make runs on us this tournament, both ways — and (the players) are just tough, they don’t get flustered. They just keep playing hard and get the job done. Hopefully, we can do that one more game, on Friday.”
Jaylee Long, Anna Brummel and Lily Ruehmeier will be wearing the Lion uni for the final time in the final game of the high school basketball season. These are three players who have made a difference on this team and they deserve to go out with a state title.
And Friday evening at the Breslin is where they and their teammates will get it done.