Hornet time arrives

L’ANSE – Kelsey Ross, Madissen Swanson and Valerie Rajala have seen enough district championship awards ceremonies to probably recite the MHSAA announcer script verbatim.

In 2011, 2012 and 2013, their role ended at “let’s acknowledge these two fine teams for their achievements this year and their play today.”

Wednesday, after a hard-fought 43-40 win over Calumet, they and their teammates were the stars of “the awards presentaton to the Class C, District 96 champions, the Purple Hornets of L’Anse High School.”

“It feels amazing just to get the trophy this year. We haven’t got it in four years since I’ve been on varsity and I’m just really excited that we actually got it as a team,” Swanson said.

All three played in all three championship game losses (all to Houghton), and finally, they’ll get to see life beyond the district final as the Purple Hornets advance to a regional semifinal Tuesday in Escanaba vs. Norway or Iron Mountain.

“We’ve never been there before, so we’re going to be energized. This is an all-new experience for us. These girls are pumped,” L’Anse coach Scott Lloyd said.

Though the teams’ meeting five days previous in the regular season finale, a 78-64 L’Anse win, was full of scoring runs, momentum swings and a tad bit of sloppy play, Wednesday was mostly buttoned-up from beginning to end with one exception: a mid-second quarter spurt in which L’Anse, getting eight points and a pair of triples from Ross, turned a 10-10 tie into a 20-12 lead.

Calumet coach Don Hill knew his team couldn’t repeat its 23-turnover performance from Saturday. It had only 10 Wednesday but never could get over the hump.

“There was one run in the game tonight … other than that, it was just hard-nosed great defense by both teams. We had trouble getting looks we wanted, I know we gave them trouble getting looks they wanted. That’s why the score was in the 40’s,” he said.

“It’s right where we wanted it. We wanted the game lower-scoring, we didn’t want to play 78-64 again. Forties is where we wanted it, I’ll take my chances giving up 43 points with this group of girls any day.”

Swanson’s three 2:13 into the second half gave L’Anse the only double-digit (28-18) lead of the game, and it lasted less than a minute. Neither team scored more than four points without reply the rest of the way.

L’Anse, with a 40-34 lead inside the last minute, tried to take the air out of the ball, but a turnover followed by a kamikaze and-one from Lexie Rowe cut the lead in half. Before the free throw was even marked in the scorebook, Lindsay Hulkonen broke loose over the top of the Calumet defense for a layup.

Rowe, who had eight of her 14 points in the fourth quarter, scored again on the next possession, but Swanson split two free throws to make it a two-possession game again.

Rowe drew a foul on the other end, making the first from the line for a 43-40 game with 2.6 seconds remaining, but drew no iron in an apparent attempt to miss intentionally to create an offensive rebound.

After the whistle, Ross drew the foul, and though she didn’t make either free throw, the ball being on the opposite end of the floor with less than a second remaining rendered the play moot.

“We’ve been watching other teams get this, watching them celebrate and it feels good to finally be on the other end and be celebrating, even if it wasn’t the best game we played, we still wanted to come through,” Ross said.

Neither side accomplished many of its offensive goals, as both tended to cancel out each other’s strengths. Calumet contested outside shots with long arms and denied the Hornets (particularly Swanson) access to the key. L’Anse held Calumet to a single three-pointer by harassing their guards before they could set up an inside-outside game, and a strong rebounding performance from Rajala (13 boards) kept the Kings from piling up putbacks.

“With the exception of Valerie, some nights we don’t get hardly any rebounds and she was just a beast tonight on the boards,” Lloyd said.

Calumet actually made more field goals (18 to L’Anse’s 14), but made only three of 10 free throws. L’Anse had two more treys and went 11-of-18 from the line.

Rowe’s 14 led all scorers, while Ellen Twardzik put in 12. Ross finished with a team-best 11 for L’Anse (19-3) and Swanson scored 10.

Calumet finishes the season 15-7, 0-5 against the WestPAC co-champions, but will return all but one (exchange student Nikki Polakova) player from Wednesday’s roster.

“It hurts right now, but hopefully the hurt turns into hard work so we can have this moment ourselves,” Hill said.