EAST LANSING – Athens has strung together six straight District titles, but always fell just a bit short of reaching the Finals at Breslin Center.
For a few reasons, this wasn’t supposed to be the season the Indians took that next step.
They graduated 11 players last spring. Add in the necessary blend-in of an exchange student, two sophomores and a freshman who play significant roles.
But coach Calvin Quist might’ve found a championship combination – of at least a historical one.
Athens downed Crystal Falls Forest Park 61-48 in Thursday’s second Class D Semifinal and will play in its first MHSAA championship game Saturday morning.
“It means everything in the world. Just to be part of a great tradition,” Athens junior Leia Fuller said. “It’s unexplainable. Going this far, you really don’t know what it feels like. You just want to go the further step, just want to go more and more.”
Athens (21-5) will take on No. 7 and two-time reigning champion Waterford Our Lady (22-4) at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Don’t expect the Indians to be intimidated.
No player measures taller than 5-foot-8, but the Indians proved again that doesn’t matter much if they don’t let opponents get the ball up the floor.
Relying on a stifling defensive press, Athens had 19 steals and took advantage of 23 total Forest Park turnovers. Trojans sophomore Alexis Gussert was outstanding – hitting 14 of 24 shots for 34 points, to go along with 12 rebounds, five blocks and three steals – but the rest of her teammates combined to shoot only 20 percent from the floor.
“I’m speechless. We had a pretty good game plan, and these young ladies executed it well,” Quist said. “This is the deepest team I’ve had in all the (seven) years I’ve coached. I have nine players and any of the nine could start. And that too was part of our plan, because we didn’t think they had much depth. So our plan was to get the ball and go.”
The Indians outscored Forest Park 19-5 in the second quarter to take a 35-15 lead into halftime and cap what Quist called one of the team’s best first halves this winter.
But the second half saw the Trojans (21-6) make a courageous comeback.
Keyed by Gussert’s offensive punch – she hit one of her 3-pointers from just in front of her team’s bench – Crystal Falls cut the deficit to eight, 56-48, with 42 seconds to play. But the Trojans couldn’t come all the way back.
“You’ve gotta keep it up, get it into your head that you can do this,” Forest Park senior Audrey Sholander said. “Being a senior, you don’t want to give up that game. You don’t want to come out with a loss. But regardless, we just knew what we had to do.
“We’ve had close games all season long. We know how to get back in the game, know we have to work hard. In the end, they just outplayed us. So it was a tough loss, but we tried our hardest.”
Sophomore Payton Wood led Athens with 13 points and eight rebounds, and sophomore Leo Plaisir added 10 points. Nine players scored for the Indians, and seven had at least five points.
“We pass it around. We know our game and we know what shots we can take,” Wood said. “That teamwork seems to have gotten us through this game.”
Click for the box score. Watch the game and both teams' postgame press conferences at MHSAA.tv.
PHOTO: Athens freshman Allison Fuller looks for an open teammate Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Hockey Weekly Action Photos)