Surrounded by Gladiator defenders, Forest Park’s Lexi Gussert scores two of her 25 points in her team’s 54-42 win March 1.
BESSEMER—After surviving a huge scare in their post-season opener, the Ladies in Black from Forest Park had few problems winning the Class D District 127 championship here March 2.
The Lady Trojans, who wore their black “away” uniforms in all three games, defeated Watersmeet, Ontonagon and Bessemer to advance to this week’s Class D regional tourney at Kingsford High School, where they will wear black again.
They face Superior Central in a semifinal game Tuesday, March 6, with an unusually early 5 p.m. tipoff. Bark River-Harris and Baraga play in the other semifinal.
FP takes an 18-5 record into regional play, but their postseason dreams nearly ended in a nightmare second half against Watersmeet in the tourney opener Feb. 27.
The Lady Trojans were saved by Lexi Gussert, who scored three baskets in the final half minute to pull out a 35-34 win.
After such a great season, losing in the tourney opener, said Coach Jeff Syrjanen, would have been “pretty devastating.” He credited Watersmeet’s coaches for an excellent game plan and the Nimrod girls for executing it well. “They gave us a run for our money!”
The Nimrods used a slow-down game on Forest Park. “They were very deliberate,” said the coach, “and weren’t going to get in an up-and-down-the-court game with us.” On defense, Watersmeet used a tough zone on FP.
The Trojans led 8-3 after one quarter and 18-8 at halftime. Syrjanen said he wanted his team to get several baskets early in the third quarter to force the Nimrods out of their zone. Watersmeet senior Gertie McGeshick spoiled that plan with back-to-back three-pointers.
“It seemed to snowball,” he said. “We’d go down and miss a shot. They’d get the ball and go into that deliberate offense again.” The Nimrods passed the ball until they found an open outside shot.
Michaela Burke and McGeshick connected on five three-pointers in the second half, and the Nimrods took a 31-29 lead with three minutes left.
After free throws put Watersmeet up 34-29 with a minute left, Gussert dribbled through their zone for a lay-up basket with 24 seconds left. After a time-out (FP’s last), Audrey Sholander stole the inbounds pass, Gussert missed a shot but put in the rebound, and the Trojans were down by one, 34-33.
FP fouled with 11 seconds left, but the Nimrod player missed the free throw. “Tanner Bartczak got the rebound,” the coach explained, “and kicked it to Lexi, Lexi took it the length of the floor. Just inside the free throw line, she fired a jump shot—and it banked in off the backboard with 1.6 seconds left.
“I don’t know how she got between everybody, because they had everybody there waiting for her.” Bartczak intercepted Watersmeet’s inbounds pass, and FP had escaped.
Forest Park’s 34 points was its low total for the season (previous low: 46). Gussert’s 20 points led the Lady Trojans, but nobody else had more than four. For Watersmeet, McGeshick led with 19, and Burke had nine.
The big Leap Day snowstorm delayed the semifinal game against Ontonagon to March 1. No drama this time. Onto led just once, in the first quarter, and seconds later Bartczak scored on an outlet pass.
The Gladiators were within one early in the second quarter when the Trojans broke out 10-0. Gussert hit three shots from the lane, then two free throws, and Kendra Campbell scored from outside, putting FP ahead 26-15.
Ontonagon never got closer than eight after that and was held to a single free throw in the third quarter, as the Trojans switched to a matchup zone. “It went very well,” said Syrjanen.
Gussert led Forest Park with 25, including 12 in the second quarter. Bartczak had 10, Adel Isaacson had six and Sholander scored five. The Glads were led by Bobbi Ross with 15 and Olivia Soumis with 10.
Other stat leaders: Gussert, 10 rebounds, seven blocked shots; Sholander, seven assists. FP shot 45% to Ontonagon’s 30%.
Twenty-four hours later, on March 2, the Ladies in Black were back in Bessemer’s “House of Noise” to battle the host Speedgirls for the District 127 title.
Bessemer’s Heather Salin, who scored 29 in the semifinal win over Ewen-Trout Creek, hit a pair of three-pointers early, convincing Syrjanen that a man-to-man defense was in order.
It worked: Bessemer only had four free throws for the rest of the half, as the Trojans led 26-10 at halftime.
“I put Sholander on her [Salin], and she did an outstanding job—she took her right out of her game.” It did the same to Bessemer—“They just couldn’t get inside.”
On offense, the Speedgirls used a box-and-one defense on Gussert. FP has seen that before. “If you’re going to double-up on her, we’re always going to find an open person, and we have good shooters all across the board.” Pick your poison.
All 15 Lady Trojans, including the JV call-ups, got into the game and helped win the district title.
Top stats: Gussert, 16 points, 10 rebounds; Bartczak, 12 points, seven boards, three assists, two blocks; Campbell, six points, five rebounds in limited time; Sholander, six assists and two steals.
Salin finished with 12 points for Bessemer, and Megan Ahnen had six.
• Early tip-off at Kingsford on March 6—5 p.m. Central time for the regional semifinal against Superior Central (21-2). In the second game, at 7, Baraga (9-13) challenges Bark River-Harris (21-1). The regional title game is March 8 at 6 p.m.
The Kingsford regional winner faces the Pellston regional champ on March 13 in a state quarterfinal game at either Escanaba or Sault Ste. Marie.
Both the Panthers’ losses this season were to Bark River, by margins of 18 and seven points. The Broncos’ only loss was at Forest Park, 63-58, on Jan. 13. Bark River defeated the Lady Trojans 55-52 in their own gym Dec. 2.
Trojans 8 10 8 9 -- 35
Nimrods 3 6 14 11 -- 34
Trojans 16 18 6 14 -- 54
Gladiators 11 14 1 16 -- 42
Trojans 15 11 12 9 -- 47
Speedgirls 8 2 6 12 -- 28