By RON DEUTER
KINGSFORD - Forest Park is one step closer to its ultimate goal.
Ron Deuter/the Daily News Photos
Forest Park’s Lexi Gussert blocks a shot by Central U.P. Most Valuable Player Vanessa Freberg during Thursday’s Class D regional final against Superior Central.
Forest Park players and fans celebrate with the regional trophy.
Forest Park fans show their support during Thursday’s game.
Forest Park’s Kendra Campbell (15) gets a piece of a shot by Superior Central’s Brooke Pasanen.
Forest Park’s Lexi Gussert (22) fires a short junmper.
Burt Angeli/The Daily News Photo
Forest Park’s Kendra Campbell puts up a shot in between Superior Central’s Brianna Emard (24) and Vanessa Freberg during Thursday’s regional final.
Before a standing-room-only crowd inside the Kingsford High School gymnasium, Lexi Gussert poured in 43 points and pulled down 21 rebounds, as the Lady Trojans, while forced to put in a full four quarters, turned back Superior Central 69-52 in the Class D Region 32 final Thursday.
Forest Park (24-0), winning its third straight regional trophy, faces Posen in a state quarterfinal Tuesday at Sault Ste. Marie. Posen, also unbeaten at 25-0, ripped Brimley 56-37 in its regional title game Thursday.
"This feels awesome," said junior Sierra Robarge, who scored eight points and hit back-to-back triples during a masterful second-quarter by the Lady Trojans. "I can't express how exciting it is right now. It's so great to keep on playing. It's exciting. We can't wait to be back in the state quarterfinals."
Gussert, doing the majority of her work inside Thursday after lighting up Dollar Bay for six triples in the regional semifinal Tuesday, connected for three 3-pointers. One of those was a last-second toss to end the first quarter, giving 14 points in the first frame as Gussert exploited the matchup of the much smaller Teslyn Tyner.
By halftime, Gussert was at 25 points. She also racked up nine assists, eight steals and five blocks.
"Lexi is Lexi," Forest Park head coach Jeff Syrjanen said. "She had an outstanding game, as usual. We know if we have to go to her, she can finish and get the points when we need them. That toss at the end of the first quarter is just typical of her."
Gussert was quick to credit her team.
"I couldn't be more proud of my team," she said. "They looked inside a lot when they had the smaller Teslyn on me. They did a great job of looking inside."
Superior Central (21-3), with Brooke Pasanen scoring 18, Vanessa Freberg adding 15, and Tyner hitting for 11, kept pace with the Lady Trojans in the first quarter - even holding leads at 8-6 and 12-11. But a couple of lay-ups by Kendra Campbell, who scored 10 in the game, and the buzzer-beater by Gussert had Forest Park up six.
In the second quarter, the Lady Trojans poured it on. Hitting their first five shots of the quarter from deep, Forest Park opened a double-digit advantage it would never lose.
"Lexi came out on fire and we didn't have an answer," Superior Central head coach Greg Trowbridge said. "We were sticking with her for a bit and we got cold in that second quarter a little bit. She kept going, they started taking the ball inside, we adjusted a little bit too late."
Gussert and Robarge each swished two 3-pointers in row, and Abby Nylund added another during the second-quarter onslaught.
"The outside shots - Sierra Robarge - they were not afraid to shoot, and that's what we have to do as a team, take advantage of those opportunities," Gussert said. "I am really proud of them."
Forest Park's defense limited the Cougars to one field goal in the second quarter, a three by Freberg.
"Our defense was definitely a strong point of ours today," Robarge said. "We really worked on it and you could tell throughout the game."
"The second quarter was huge for us," Syrjanen said. "We really played a great game in the second quarter. Our defense was really good, I thought, the whole first half. We knew that Superior had a couple of really decent players there, and we had to stop them. We put a lot of pressure on our girls to go up and play some hard defense, and I thought they just really did and outstanding job of it."
Gussert and Campbell both had first-half blocks.
"It was definitely a high-paced game, and we played outstanding," Campbell said. "It felt great to play up to our tempo again."
Despite trailing by 24 at the break, Superior Central refused to give in. The Cougars actually outscored Forest Park in the second half by 37-29 count but were never able to get the Forest Park lead under 13.
"In the second half we were a little mentally broke down I think," Syrjanen said. "We haven't played a whole game all year. Asking our kids to go deeper into the game tonight, I think we lost some shooters a few times and had a few mental breakdowns. We had a cushion, thank God, because Superior Central never quit. They are a fine team."
Pasanen led the Cougar charge after halftime, scoring 13 of her 18 with a couple of long 3-pointers.
"Brooke, she was hitting stuff from like 40 feet back, it was amazing," Gussert said. "I have to give Superior Central a ton of credit. They had a great year. They should be proud."
Freberg connected on 7-of-10 at the line in the second half, fouling out with a little more than three minutes left to play, and Tyner nailed a couple of big threes.
"We just need to hold our heads up because I thought we did pretty good," Freberg said. "We kept fighting. Second quarter killed us."
Gussert picked up her fourth foul with about five minutes left in the game. At the time, the Trojans' lead was down top 14 thanks to a three by Pasanen. But Gussert answered that shot with a 12-foot jumper from the right side. She said she was a little worried about the foul trouble.
"Yeah, but as a player I know right there, I am not going to foul again," she said. "So I just stick my hands up."
With Gussert unable to defend, Superior Central's Molly Swajanen was able to go right by for a couple lay-ups late, the second bringing the Cougars within 13 at 61-48. But Campbell got inside on the next trip for Forest Park, getting one and the foul. A pass sailed out of bounds on the Cougars' next try, and Gussert hit a lay-up to reach the 40-point mark and put Forest Park back up 18.
"I just want to credit my team," Gussert said. "We knew we'd have to hustle like crazy and that's what we all did. I'm glad I could do that for the team."
Forest Park, returning to the quarterfinals for a third straight year, fell to St. Ignace last year. The Saints are in Class C this season.
"It's always great to win a championship," Campbell said. "It's great to win districts. It's great to win region. Now we just have to keep going, keep our heads up.
"We've never been more ready to play in a quarterfinal game."
Syrjanen said he has a lot to learn in the next few days to prepare for Posen. But he knows his team will be ready.
"The kids keep themselves focussed," he said. "They are a very driven team. They set their goals at the beginning of the year. Their goal is to get to Lansing, and we're one step closer now."
Tuesday's contest will mark Gussert's last high school game in the Upper Peninsula. She is the U.P.'s all-time leading scorer for boys and girls with more than 2,000 career points.
"I expect them to go all the way," Trowbridge said. "I don't want to be beat by the second-best, I want to be beat by the best. I'll be rooting for them down in East Lansing."
Forest Park 18 22 9 20 - 69
Superior Central 12 4 15 21 - 52
FOREST PARK: Stankewicz 3, A. Nylund 3, Hendrickson 2, Campbell 10, Robarge 8, Gussert 43. FT: 13-23. F: 14.
SUPERIOR CENTRAL: Tyner 11, Pasanen 18, Sawjanen 8, Freberg 15. FT: 11-15. F: 14. FO: Freberg.
FG shooting - FP: 25-67 (3-pt: 6-20); SC: 17-53 (3-pt: 7-17). 3-point field goals - FP: Nylund, Robarge 2, Gussert 3; SC: Tyner 2, Pasanen 3, Freberg 2. Rebounding - FP: 44 (Gussert 21); SC: 37 (Freberg 15).