By RON DEUTER
ESCANABA - The best player in the state wasn't enough to top the best team in the state.
Paul Gerard Photos
Forest Park’s Lexi Gussert drives the lane between St. Ignace’s Abbey Ostman (4) and Margo Brown during Tuesday’s Class D state quarterfinal at Escanaba High School. Gussert led all scorers with 30 points.
St. Ignace’s Sarah Cullip gets position for a rebound. Cullip led the Saints with 18 points.
Top-ranked St. Ignace (25-0), forcing No. 3 Forest Park into more than 40 turnovers, never trailed after the first quarter and ended the Lady Trojans' season 70-54 in a Class D state quarterfinal at Escanaba High School Tuesday night.
"We felt that we did our team and our community proud," Forest Park head coach Jeff Syrjanen said. "I thought we played well with them. St. Ignace is a darn good team."
Lexi Gussert, learning she was the state's Class D Player of the Year just hours before tip off, scored a game-high 30 points, including 13 in a third quarter in which the Lady Trojans twice trimmed a double-digit deficit to five points. But St. Ignace closed the third with a 10-3 rush to pretty much put the game out of reach for the fatigued Trojans.
"They are a phenomenal team, just well-rounded," Gussert said. "I just really hope they can bring the state title back to the U.P."
St. Ignace, a semifinal participant last season in Class C, put four players in double figures, led by Sarah Cullip's 18 points. Kelley Wright scored 16, Emily Hinsman added 14 and Margo Brown put in another 12.
After hanging for the first quarter, the Saints' pressure, speed and depth proved too much for Gussert and Forest Park to overcome.
"The pressure that they put on you is very hard to beat," Gussert said. "They are just perfectly coached. We heard how good they were, but we went out there thinking we could still beat them. In the end, we lost to the better team. They are very good."
Forest Park fell behind by 11 at halftime but opened the third scoring eight of the first 10 points. Gussert and Maria Stankewicz both hit threes to kickstart the rally. Gussert drained three of her four triples in the third frame. But it wasn't enough.
"You're never going to keep a kid like that from putting up big numbers," St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls said. "She's just awesome. It's fun to watch her.
"We warned our kids at halftime that that was going to happen, she was going to start taking shots. She stepped up, but then I thought we were able to come back down and execute, make some good passes and good drives."
The Saints spread out their offense to draw Forest Park into man coverage in the third.
"I felt more confident for our kids to be able to dribble drive, and against man, it's a lot easier to dish it for easier ones," Ingalls said.
Cullip, Brown and Wright all came up with treys during the Saints' push late in the third quarter to quickly quell the Trojans' surge. But overall it was quick buckets off turnovers that carried St. Ignace to its ever-expanding lead throughout the game.
St. Ignace had 78 shots in the game, compared to 47 by Forest Park.
"You have to keep hustling," Ingalls said. "I thought our kids really played their hearts out and kept working, kept working, kept working."
Gussert's first three-pointer of the night gave Forest Park its last lead at 16-15 with less than a minute to go in the first quarter. But a quick layup by Cullip followed by two free throws from Brown on a foul at the buzzer allowed St. Ignace to grab the lead heading into the second.
Forest Park struggled most against St. Ignace's pressure in the second frame, not getting back on the scoreboard until the 3:55 mark. By then, the Saints had opened a 10-point lead for the first time in the contest. Gussert, mostly double-teamed, did not score in the second - opting to dump off to the open shooters - and went into halftime with just seven points.
As the game wore on, St. Ignace's freshness took its toll on the Trojans. Utilizing a deeper rotation than the Trojans, the Saints were able to maintain the pace of their relentless attack.
"We've got little, I call them ankle-biters, to come in and just kind of create havoc," Ingalls said of her bench. "You've got to be ready to go when your number is called, and I thought they were."
"We were wondering if they had six people on the floor, because that's what it seemed like," Syrjanen said. "We'll be way more prepared for that kind of pressure in the future. Our young guards got better in the second half.
"They're just a good team. It's not that we screwed up, it's just that we got beat by a better team tonight. We haven't seen anybody that fast. They're quick and they're relentless. They just keep on you, and keep on you and keep on you."
While the Trojans do have to say goodbye to two seniors in Gina Graff and Ronnie Jaeger, the rest of the squad returns next season. In fact, Tuesday's game had a total of just four seniors on both sides combined. If the Saints remain in Class D, a quarterfinal rematch wouldn't be out of the question.
"We're young team," Gussert said. "We have a freshmen guard who did great out there. We all turned it over tonight because their pressure was so tough. But we're young and we're only going to get better. The second half showed what we can become. The future is bright for us."
Forest Park finished the season 23-2.
"We're proud of our season," Syrjanen said. "Did we want to go to Breslin? Heck yeah, we were ready to go. But not many teams get this far, and we're proud of it."
St. Ignace faces Climax Scotts (21-5) in a semifinal Thursday at MSU's Breslin Center. Athens (22-3) and Waterford (20-4) battle in the other semifinal. The championship game is Saturday.
St. Ignace 19 16 19 16 - 70
Forest Park 16 8 18 12 - 54
ST. IGNACE: Cullip 18, Wright 16, Hinsman 14, Brown 12, Ostman 6, LaVake 4. FT: 16-22. F: 13.
FOREST PARK: Gussert 30, Stankewicz 6, Campbell 5, Nylund 5, Isaacson 4, Robarge 2, Bradley 2. FT: 6-8. F: 16. FO: Nylund.
FG shooting - SI: 25-78 (3-pt: 4-13); FP: 20-47 (3-pt: 8-20). 3-pt FGs - SI: Brown (2), Wright, Cullip. FP: Gussert (4), Stankewicz (2), Nylund, Campbell. Rebounding - SI: 40 (Ostman 10); FP: Nylund (10).