Eagles grounded

Duncan MacLean • Mar 19, 2019 at 11:12 PM

RICHLAND — Even birds of prey have predators. 

The Fruitport Calvary Christian girls basketball team made short work of most of its competition this year, but Tuesday’s state quarterfinal matchup brought another level of competition. Defending state champion and top-ranked Adrian Lewanee Christian Cougars put together 32 minutes of near-flawless basketball to score a 59-32 win over Calvary.

“Their five were better than our five today,” said Fruitport Calvary Christian head coach Brad Richards. “I’m proud of the girls and everything we accomplished this year. We had a slow start in the first, and the 34 we gave up in the first half was a season worst. That is a really good team. If we played 10 times, we might get one or two, maybe. They were just better.”

Defending Division 4 Player of the Year Bree Salenbien paced the Cougars with 28 points, continuing a tear that has the sophomore well above 1,000 career points already.

“We thought we had a game plan to stop her, but we also were hoping she would have an off-night, and the opposite happened,” Richards said. “She was doing moves that are pretty darn impressive.”

The Eagles started cold from the floor and never quite got warm. Kelsey Richards led Calvary with 11 points, followed by Brionna Johnson with 10, Lizzie Cammenga with eight and Kyra Hamilton with three.

The game was out of hand in a hurry, as the Cougars jumped out to a 12-2 lead before the gym lights had reached full power. A tight full-court press and solid defense around the rim kept the Eagles off the scoreboard, while a pair of 3-pointers from Salenbien put Lewanee’s scoring on display.

If Salenbien wasn’t going to the hole, she was dishing crisp passes to her teammates, who routinely found one or two more on-time passes to produce a bucket. The well-oiled offense plus strong defense and shaky shooting by Calvary added up to a 21-9 deficit at the end of the first quarter.

The Eagles stemmed the bleeding with their best scoring quarter in the second, as Johnson and Cammenga combined for nine points and Richards added her only two of the first half. A stronger effort on defense slowed the Cougars’ scoring, bringing on a 34-20 halftime score.

“We really had a horrible start,” Richards said. “Down 12-2 hurt. Then, we really put together a nice finish to that second quarter and made it seem like we could work our way back into the game by the fourth if we started shooting well. It just didn’t happen.”

Lenawee returned the favor in the third quarter, holding Calvary to just four points. Salenbien poured in 10 of her own, including back-to-back 3-pointers to start the quarter. The start of the fourth period saw Lenawee ahead 48-24.

The final frame saw renewed fight by the Eagles as they stared the end of their historic season in the face. Richards finally got involved, scoring seven points in the final minutes.

“There are two things that can kill you in basketball, and that’s size and speed. We weren’t really worried about their size, but their speed killed us,” Brad Richards said. “Even their little girls were beating us to rebounds and shoving us out of the way. That hasn’t happened to this team this year.

“It wasn’t Kelsey’s best night,” Richards added. “She just couldn’t get it to fall tonight. It is a lot to ask of a girl to play through a double team like that, but also says a lot about her game that they wanted to take her away.”

Despite the state of its conclusion, the 2018-19 girls basketball season will be remembered as one of the most successful in school history. The Eagles captured the school’s first regional title on the hardwood, their sixth straight district title and a fourth straight undefeated run through the Alliance Conference.

“This will be remembered as that team,” Richards said. “The team that went the furthest. The team with the regional trophy. Every player has a special place in my heart. What they accomplished was so incredible this year. They will be the team that everybody talks about. As soon as we won that regional championship we thought, ‘Let’s go out and beat the No. 1 team in the state.

“They are great girls from great families. I am proud and humbled to be a part of something so fun. We are sad it is over. I wake up every morning and thank the Lord for letting me coach here with these girls.”

The ending was bitter, but sweetened by the presence of the Calvary faithful with a full student section comprised of seemingly every one of the school’s 60 enrolled high schoolers, along with a parent section to rival any traveling fan base.

“It is really humbling to see that support so far from home,” Richards said. “When we played the regional championship game at Mendon, against Mendon, it felt like a home game. It was the same today. The school family is so close. These are good memories for these girls and the coaches and families. They left it out there, that team was just better than we were. Couldn’t ask for more.”

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