The Forest Park Lady Trojans basketball team and coaches pose with the district, regional and state runner-up trophies earned en route to a 26-1 record this season. Also displayed were a pair of team photos, two basketballs and a plaque celebrating senior Lexi Gussert’s selection as Miss Basketball 2014. (Kevin Zini photo)
CRYSTAL FALLS— After an exhausting, exhilarating and emotionally draining trip from nearly one end of Michigan to the other, the Forest Park girls basketball team finally arrived back home Saturday around 9 p.m.
The Lady Trojans’ charter bus was escorted into town by both the police and fire departments while some of their adoring fans braved the plummeting temperatures to greet the team that had grabbed hold of the community’s heart for the past three months.
About 10 hours earlier, the Trojans had fallen to Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart 56-53 in the Class D state championship game at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. As difficult as the last-minute loss was, the love and support of its fans put a band-aid on the team’s psyche.
“The whole trip was overwhelming because you have everybody behind you,” senior Kendra Campbell said. “Those same people that were there at the beginning were there at the end.”
The end came Sunday when the school held a welcome home celebration at Eddie Chambers Gymnasium. About 200 fans, parents, students, administrators and assembled media gathered to watch the team, its coaches and its support staff put a bow on a season that will never be forgotten.
“We will always remember and cherish this team,” Superintendent Becky Waters said. “I can’t say enough about these girls. Their winning attitude and effort was tremendous.”
Those traits were not lost on the student body at Forest Park.
“They kind of inspired everybody because they work as a team,” sophomore cheerleader Caitlin Dorton said. “It was really a great experience for all of us. I think everyone is just really proud that we made it that far.”
For those curious or counting, the last roadie of the season began at 10 a.m. Tuesday when the team left for its state quarterfinal game in Sault Ste. Marie. From there it was over the bridge and down to East Lansing with stops in between.
Then came a surprise trip to Detroit to watch senior Lexi Gussert accept the Miss Michigan basketball trophy for the best female prep basketball player in the state. After that it was back to the home of Michigan State University for the semifinal Thursday evening and Saturday morning’s final.
All in all, the team lived the road life filled buses, suitcases, hotels and restaurants for about 107 hours. Athletic director Dwaine Anderson said the team traveled more than 1,600 miles in its tournament run, which began with the districts in Wakefield.
Sunday’s celebration was drenched with tears and laughter. It all began with a standing ovation as the players walked into the gym as a group for one final time wearing red-hooded sweatshirts and runner-up medals around their necks.
A table next to a lectern held the district, regional and state runner-up trophies along with a white and leather-colored basketball in honor of Gussert’s Miss Michigan award.
A slide show played in the background throughout the ceremony, which began with Waters’ remarks. Anderson spoke next before he turned the program over to the team and its coaches.
“This is going to be tough,” assistant coach Jackie Giuliani said as she began.
Head coach Jeff Syrjanen battled his emotions as well.
“(Former Forest Park football coach) Bill Santilli said this was going to be the hardest thing I’ve had to do and he’s correct,” Syrjanen said choking up.
Every player spoke, many through tears. The underclassmen thanked the seniors and offered their goodbyes. Senior Kaitlyn Bradley told the story of the team’s visit to the Crown Boxing Club in Lansing.
Through a raspy voice, senior Mary Beth Grandahl told the audience how the girls gathered around their phones while dining at Applebee’s to listen to the boys regional final contest against North Central on Wednesday night, living and dying with every moment of the broadcast of the Trojans’ eventual overtime loss from back home.
Finally, it was Gussert’s turn, the player whose superlative talent and determination drove the 2013-14 Trojans to dizzying heights.
Before she could begin, the crowd and her teammates gave her a resounding standing ovation.
“As I sat there on the bus after the game, everyone was sleeping except me,” Gussert said to the assembly. “And I kept thinking of the (final) game, of course. I felt lonely, but I was proud. These girls finally got to rest. After a long hard-fought tourney, they could all sleep.”
Syrjanen offered his summation of the once-in-a-lifetime season that touched so many.
“Every person in town and other towns would come up to me and want to talk about the Lady Trojans. Our fans followed us all over the state and their kindness and encouragement will never be forgotten.”