Waiting's the toughest part for young Sabers squad
NORMAL — The conversation was to the point.
When freshmen Jade Brinkoetter and Erica Wallen first sat in coach Chris Mennig’s office, he showed them a local newspaper article he had clipped out.
The story documented how Brinkoetter and Wallen had helped St. Matthew win the eighth-grade girls’ basketball state championship in 2008.
“I said to them, ‘My goal is to make sure this is not your best basketball memory,’ ” Mennig recalled Saturday.
Now seniors, Brinkoetter and Wallen tried to complete the unique double-double Saturday at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena. The two veterans, however, were unable to help top-ranked St. Thomas More win the Class 2A state crown in their final prep game.
The school with the best Class 2A softball team in the state followed up with the top girls’ basketball team.
Fifth-ranked Nashville stunned the Sabers 42-29 in Saturday night’s Class 2A state championship game.
Three of Nashville’s five basketball starters were on the championship softball team last spring: senior Shaye Harre, junior Hannah Yung and sophomore Jordi Harre.
“It didn’t end quite the way we wanted,” Mennig said, “but I told them at halftime, if we’re going down, we’re going down with a smile on our face.
“Maybe we didn’t write the last page the way we wanted, but I’d still buy the book. We hope to do a sequel next year.”
Junior point guard Randa Harshbarger described her emotions as “joyful tears. We proved ourselves by coming here. We’ll come back strong. We’ll be back next year.”
On Saturday, there were no comebacks.
The Sabers struggled almost from the outset, falling behind 2-0 and creating only one first-half tie when Harshbarger scored from the lane at the 5:10 mark of the opening period. Her basket created a 2-2 tie.
Freshman Tori McCoy was whistled for two fouls before the game was 41/2 minutes old and picked up her third with 2:55 left in the first half.
St. Thomas More missed all 10 first-half three-point shots and overall was 4 for 25 from the field at intermission. Two of the baskets were on putbacks, and none of the nine turnovers the team forced resulted in points.
“We weren’t finishing the simple shots we normally finish,” Erica Wallen said. “We never clicked as a team.”
Until facing Nashville, the Sabers had trailed for 51 seconds in six postseason games, all in the first quarter of the super-sectional game against Litchfield on Monday.
Against Nashville, they never led and had one tie which lasted for 87 seconds.
“Each steppingstone doesn’t happen overnight,” Mennig said. “Look at Nashville. How many times were they here before they were able to pull it off?
“I’d like to see us come back. We’ll see how hungry and humble we are.”
Nashville had six previous state trophies in basketball, but none for first place. St. Thomas More’s loss keeps Sullivan’s unbeaten and nationally ranked 1991 team in place as the only girls’ basketball state championship team from the area.
“Our kids were a little tentative,” Mennig said, “and with the foul issues, everyone got a little apprehensive.”
The Hornettes did it with defense, limiting the Sabers to a pair of field goals in each of the first two quarters.
Despite her foul woes, McCoy led the Sabers with nine points and eight rebounds. Lexi Wallen was next with eight points, and Harshbarger grabbed seven rebounds.
STM’s point total was 14 fewer than it scored in any other game. The team was averaging more than 68 points per game.
Nashville coach Wayne Harre said his team’s defense was more effective than he anticipated.
“You have to give something up, and we weren’t going to get beat inside the paint,” Harre said. “Our girls did a good job staying with them, making sure we always had five inside the paint to get a rebound.”
Brinkoetter and Erica Wallen, who played in their final prep games, were two of the integral components to the success of a 32-3 team which had a 13-game winning streak snapped by Nashville (33-2). The two girls had varsity uniforms as freshmen and, Mennig added, “They were contributors.”
Their value, he emphasized, extends beyond the box score.
“They could rattle off far more points for about any other squad,” Mennig said, “but to them, it doesn’t matter. They are behind the scenes the key piece. If not for their willingness to serve their teammates, this thing could have gotten ugly.”
Brinkoetter scored the first five STM points of the second half, but any hopes the Sabers had of rallying were thwarted when the Hornettes hit eight consecutive free throws to start the fourth period.
For the game, STM held a 12-11 lead in field goals made but was outscored from the free throw line 16-4.
“It’s not what we wanted,” Erica Wallen said, “but we got here.”