Back row (l to r): Assistant Coach Jason Long, Manager Trevir Kral, Assistant Coach Dan Maki, Anna Brummel, Madison Berwald, Sophia Frisbie, Jessica Sanchez, Riley Goff, Kendall Mathis, Kyla Rounds, Amaya Nelson, Coach Nate Thomasma Front row (l to r): Lily Ruehmeier, Emmerson Goodin, Kayla Fisk, Jaxi Long, Jaylee Long
The basketball season was cancelled and the magical run by the Newaygo Lions came to an end not as a loss to a team but to a virus that shut down the season and has altered the lives of all of us.
In covering local basketball over the years there have been a select few teams that have held a special place in my heart. Teams that just seemed to have the kind of personality designed to make you want to root for them.
This was one.
As a gift to the Lady Lions for the courtside thrills they produced it seemed fitting to speculate on what may have happened had the team been allowed to take on the highly regarded West Catholic squad in the Regional Final.
And thanks again, girls. Fun ride.
It was a classic.
The West Cathloic victory machine that had rolled through their schedule with but one loss an early season stumble against a strong Reeths Puffer squad came into Sparta teeming with confidence after seeing the team they had long set their sights on lose to upstart Newaygo.
Instead of a battle of basketball titans, a final featuring the #2 and #3 teams in D2, the Falcons would be taking on a team that finished 5 games behind their conference co-leaders. A team no one expected to be playing in the Regional finals.
Except for the players themselves and their coaches.
After getting past the Packers in the district opener, a team that had twice beaten them during the season they got it going with a pair of convincing wins to head to the Regionals.
There they would be looking at GR Christian, the team that seemed destined for a finals matchup with WC.
But Jaxi Long capped an epic performance by her team when she canned a three pointer from way way downtown and a shocked Eagle squad left the court wondering what had happened.
But now they were up against a team featuring Falcon #1, sophomore sensation and D1 recruit Abbey Kimball, along with all conference teammates Maddie Smith who could light it up from outside, Chrysta Daetwiler, Mia Mileski and freshman phenom Cadence Dykstra.
A lot of talent to overcome as well as a distinct advantage in size for the scrappy Lion girls.
After WC’s Smith ripped a triple off the opening tip and a steal and bucket by Kimball, the Lions broke the Falcon press and got the ball into the hands of Lily Reuhmeier who got the basket and a trip to the free throw line where she converted to make it a 5-3 game.
The next few minutes saw the teams going at it with wild abandon, as Kimball and Jaylee Long battled for breathing room and Mileski tossed a blanket on Jaxi Long denying her possession at every turn.
In the meantime, it was Emmerson Goodin who was battling for boards and finding her way to the hoop for 6 of the Lions 15 first quarter points. Sophia Frisbie seeing the Longs tied up kept feeding Goodin and Reuhmeier to keep pace with a Falcon squad that seemed to score at will.
The opening period ended with WC holding an 18-15 lead.
A slow start to the second saw the Falcons jump out to an 8 point advantage and Coach Nate Thomasma called time and inserted sophomore Kayla Fisk.
Fisk responded with a steal and sent a pass to a wide open Jaxi, who fired it in for three, followed by a Jaylee steal that led to her going to the line where she converted a pair and Newaygo was back in the game trailing by just 3.
Falcon Coach Jill VanderEnde, who had been a member of West’s state runner-up team in ‘95, called time and her team came out employing a trapping defense once again. A couple of quick turnovers extended their lead but Frisbie buried a pair of triples and Fisk played havoc with the Falcon backcourt leading to a pair of stops.
The teams hit the break with West holding a 3 point edge and the look in their eyes told it all. They knew this was a good team they were up against but the Falcons had dominated the OK Blue and were capable of holding teams down with their rugged defense. This was a Lion team that kept getting up off the canvas whenever a punch was delivered. A team that never conceded a single point and fought for everything they got.
The Lions came out of intermission to the roar of a substantially pro Newaygo crowd. Their fans, particularly the student section, bellowed their approval for this team of underdogs who went through their warmups with fire in their eyes and exuding a confidence that seemed to transcend the talent of the Falcon team.
The second half began like the first except this time it was the Lions who jumped ahead. Frisbie found Kendall Mathis open for a pair of quick buckets and when Fisk deflected a pass it was picked up by Jaylee who ripped a three.
Jaxi and Smith twice traded a pair of triples and Goodin fought off a double team to score and draw the foul which she converted and suddenly the Lions had taken charge.
Then Kimball caught fire.
She scored, forced a turnover and scored again. After Mathis split a pair at the other end Kimball drove for a basket and foul, stole an inbound pass and hit again drawing yet another foul and the Falcons moved in front taking a 2 point lead into the final frame.
The 4th was an all-out free for all. Scoring was a premium as the two squads were battling fatigue and yet bringing everything they had to the action taking place on the court.
As time wound down Kimball fired a pass to Smith who hit a three to give WC a one point lead with less than a minute left. The Lions called time and the air in the Sparta gym grew thick with tension and apprehension.
The Falcons drew back, picking up Frisbie at the half court line. She and Jaylee worked the clock down to just under 20 seconds before finding Mathis who spun to the outside and pushed it out to Jaxi. As time slipped to the 10 second mark Jaxi took the shot but a streaking Kimball leapt to deflect the shot.
That’s when the ball found its way into Frisbie’s hands. The senior gathered the ball and let it fly knowing the shot would determine if she had played her final game as a Lion.
The off balance toss found the backboard and banked in at the buzzer to give the Lions their 2nd major upset in three days.
The Lions were heading for the quarterfinals. The team who gave up size, depth, and everything else to the teams they had just vanquished.
Everything, that is, but heart.
This was a team of destiny. A team that was molded on the practice floor from day one with a bench consisting of Anna Brummel, Madison Berwald, Jessica Sanchez, Riley Goff, Kyla Rounds, and Amaya Nelson more than willing to give the starters all they could handle in practice to prepare them for the games as well as standing ready when called on to take the court.
A team that could overcome adversity and stare failure in the face refusing to yield to it.
A team that flat out would refuse to lose.
As they drank in the sweetness of victory surrounded by the fans who have embraced them this season the smiles on their faces told it all.
After the game in a group interview they joked and teased each other about the game.They gave the Falcon girls a lot of credit and did the same with their coaches.
Then one of them said ‘Who do we play next?”
And another answered. “Doesn’t really matter does it?”
And they laughed again.
Ken DeLaat- N3 Sports