Lexi Gussert surveys the court after taking a pass during the first half of Forest Park’s district title game against Wakefield-Marenisco Feb. 28. The Lady Trojans advanced to Class D regional action this week in Kingsford.
WAKEFIELD—Usually, the road from Crystal Falls to East Lansing doesn’t come anywhere close to Wakefield. But it did last week for Forest Park’s girls basketball team.
That’s where the Lady Trojans started what they hope will be a three-week trek to Michigan State University and the state Class D Finals during the District 127 tournament at Wakefield-Marenisco High School.
No problems. The Lady Trojans defeated Watersmeet 82-38 in their semifinal game Feb. 26 and then ran past the host Cardinals 66-23 in the finals Feb. 28.
Now 22-0 for the year, the Trojans travel to Kingsford for the Class D regionals this week.
In hopes of pulling off a colossal upset, Watersmeet Coach Norm Ellenberg made the most of his six-girl roster. “They came out and really challenged us,” said FP Coach Jeff Syrjanen. “They tried to run with us at the beginning.”
The Nimrods’ Frannie Zelinski got some early baskets, Michaela Burke added a three, and after the first quarter FP only led 15-11.
“We just didn’t get our system rolling right away,” Syrjanen explained. With Lexi Gussert held to three points, Kendra Campbell took the scoring lead with eight, and Maria Stankewicz added four.
To answer the Nimrods, Syrjanen “shortened the floor” with FP’s press in the second quarter, making it more compact. “Once we did that, our traps were getting on, they were making turnovers, and we got a running game going.”
Lexi broke loose with 23 of her team’s 31 points in the second quarter, including four triples. By halftime, FP led 46-17. With only one non-starter, Ellenberg couldn’t rotate girls in and out the way Syrjanen did with his deep roster, and Forest Park wore the Nimrods down.
In the third quarter, Lexi went inside and Campbell went to the perimeter, where she hit back-to-back threes. Later, Mary Grandahl scored six, and the Lady Trojans led 68-27 after three.
Gussert finished with 31 points, followed by Campbell (14), Stankewicz (8) and Sierra Robarge and Grandahl (6 each). Lexi led with six rebounds, Stankewicz’s six assists also led, and FP finished with 16 steals: four each by Stankewicz and Campbell and three by Gussert.
Zelinski led the Nimrods with 14 points, Burke had 12 (all on 3-pointers) and eighth- grader Bethany Baldwin had nine.
The Lady Trojans’ biggest challenge may have come after the game: the trip home through a mini-blizzard along U.S. 2. “We didn’t get home until 11:30,” said Syrjanen. “I guess we went like 30 mph all the way home.” That’s nearly 90 miles.
Trojans 15 31 22 14 -- 82
Nimrods 11 6 10 11 -- 38
Wakefield-Marenisco came out of the other half of the district with wins over Ewen-Trout Creek and Bessemer. W-M is an extremely young team: just one senior; everyone else is a sophomore or freshman.
The Cardinals’ reward: the Lady Trojans, who struck hard and fast, scoring the first 17 points and leading 22-2 after the first quarter. By halftime, it was 41-8.
“The intensity on defense is what I really liked,” Syrjanen said. “They couldn’t even get near the basket. Our press really seemed to bother them.”
When people discuss the FP girls, he noted, they usually talk about their offense. “But I think our defense is really good.” He talked about the play of guards Robarge and Campbell and Sam Nylund’s work. “They did some really great help defense.”
Another big factor was Forest Park’s greater speed and intensity—W-M literally couldn’t keep up.
With the win in the bag, the Lady Trojans backed off and played a “vanilla” defense in the second half, and the reserves got plenty of work. Ten different girls scored for FP.
Lexi had another triple-double: 25 points (three 3-pointers), 12 rebounds (six on offense), 10 assists and four steals.
She was backed up by Robarge (9), Stankewicz (8, plus four assists and five steals) and Jessica Bawyn (6). Campbell had three steals, and Sam Nylund had three offense boards.
None of the Cardinals scored more than four points.
Syrjanen said he was especially happy with his team’s 33 rebounds, 17 on offense. “That’s what we wanted to do—try to hit the boards. I know that’s going to be one of our challenges down the road: how we rebound.”
Trojans 22 19 13 12 -- 66
Cardinals 2 6 6 9 -- 23
• On we go. This week, it’s Kingsford and the regional tournament. FP faces Dollar Bay in the first semifinal game March 4 at 5 p.m. The winner advances to face either Superior Central or Stephenson for the regional title March 6 at 6 p.m.
The Kingsford regional winner plays the Pellston regional champ in a Class D quarterfinal game March 11, at either Negaunee or Sault Ste. Marie. After that: East Lansing.