It was a great year. An ‘herstoric’ year, as Coach Leigh Ann Roehm will tell you.
The Saline girls basketball team tied a program record with 18 regular-season wins, going 18-2. They won their first district championship since 2013. When they beat Wayne Memorial in the regional semifinal on March 10, they won their program-record 22nd game of the season. The victory propelled Saline to the sweet 16 and to the chance to play for their first regional championship against Brighton on March 12.
That was also the day the MHSAA stepped in, hours before tip-off, and announced the postponement of all Michigan high school sporting events due to the coronvirus response.
15 days later, there’s been no word from the MHSAA on the conclusion of the playoffs. Their Ohio counterpart yesterday announced the conclusion of all winter sports playoffs.
The Hornets chances for win number 23 - and maybe 24, 25 and 26, which would have been the state championship game at the Breslin Center - are slipping away. With each passing moment, it becomes more unlikely the Saline girls basketball team will get their shot at authoring the final chapters in this historic season.
For the Hornets, the win over Huron in the district championship validated a feeling the Hornets had since their revenge tour in the second half of the SEC Red schedule.
"We all felt "it" - that feeling that we were putting it all together as a team. That we were one cohesive unit pursuing a common goal. We all felt that confidence that our run wasn't done. That is for sure what stings the most," Roehm said.
The girls face the prospect of no conclusion with different perspectives.
Star junior Ella Stemmer, who became the third Hornet in history to reach 1,000 career points earlier in the year, shares the opinion of many of her teammates.
"I would be devastated. It is so tough not being able to play the game I love with people I love," Stemmer said. "However, I am grateful that I have another year to look forward to. It is especially hard on our seniors who gave it their all one final season and have to end just like that."
The seniors are Steffi Bentley, Liz Sekerak and Amera Boyd.
"If this is it and there are no more games, then I'll obviously be devastated because it’s my senior year and we had a very good chance of going to Breslin this season," Boyd said.
Bentley has become resigned to the idea that the season is over.
"Obviously, I was not happy when our season was cut short, but I have been able to reflect in the time since. The situation is truly just unlucky. It is completely out of our control, and I can accept whatever decision is made," Bentley said. "Of course, I would want the chance to play with all of my teammates again, but I just don't think it's realistic as time just goes on.
Sekerak said she'd be disappointed if the season is over - but she was quick to see the silver lining.
"I think the hardest thing is we will never know how far we could have gone. I feel we had a chance to win it all. I don’t think any of us were ready for it to be over that quickly because we still had so much left in us. You could tell by our last practice. We all loved to be around each other and it’s hard knowing I’ll never get to play with them again," Sekerak said. "If we don’t get to finish that would be very disappointing, but we have had such a good season and should still be proud of all the records and goals we accomplished as a team.”
If it all ends here, then it ends with Hornets finishing on a winning note. It ends with Saline losing just two games - an overtime loss at Bedford and a fourth-quarter Huron comeback in Saline's gym.
And those two salt-in-the-wound losses, when all is said and done, might have provided the fuel for the Hornets' 12-game win streak - a streak still intact today, a streak that included two wins over Huron, including the cathartic district championship victory at Lincoln. As Stemmer pointed out, there wasn't a team Saline played that Saline didn't beat.
The Hornets and their coach reflected on a remarkable season.
"It was truly a remarkable season. It didn't happen all at once - it was one put into motion years ago. Our success was a result of true dedication and commitment to a culture of teamwork," Roehm said. This group of young women set goals and had a clear vision on how to attain their goals. More than the wins and records we broke this year, I am most impressed with the development of leadership and culture that this team demanded of each other. "
They were led by their junior star, Stemmer. She did it all for the Hornets. When defenses got tough, she slashed her way through the paint, took the hard fouls, dished out a few elbows and scored more than anyone on the court. When the Hornets got momentum, she buried teams with three-point bombs. She also rebounded, dished the ball to teammates and played tough defense.
Stemmer talked about the team's commitment to improvement.
"We were successful in a few key areas that I think made a difference. We worked on free throws every day in practice because in the close games, those free throws make a big difference," Stemmer said. "Also, we really put an emphasis on our defense and defending the drive; our team made big improvements on rotating and not giving up easy shots."
From day one, Roehm has talked about her team being "fiercely united" in the way they played for each other. The Hornets lived up to that motto. Some talented teams crack during a long season as relationships fray. Instead, team chemistry proved to be one of Saline's great strengths.
"What made our team so special was that we all bonded as people as well as basketball players. There was never any drama between us and at the end of the day, we all just wanted to win and be the most successful that we could be," Bentley said.
Seniors like Sekerak and Boyd didn't get the accolades of their higher-scoring teammates, but they never stopped giving 100 percent in their role.
Sekerak shadowed the other team's best player nearly every game and, in the biggest moments in the biggest games, found ways to hit game-changing three-pointers, earning the nickname, "Big Shot Liz."
"If this is it, I am very proud of the way we played as a team until the end. I’m happy for our accomplishments as a team and individually. We all wanted the best for each other," Sekerak said. "This year I focused on making the right passes and my defense. I think I have improved a lot since last year. As a team we did as much as we could to get the win, I’m thrilled that this was my senior year."
Boyd, already a track star, got faster and faster as the year went on, terrorizing opposing players with blinding speed and aggression.
As coach Roehm said, "Most players want to win 50-50 balls. She wants to win the 70-30 balls."
Boyd's 100-mile-a-minute layup attempts often ended up in crashes that made people gasp. Her teammates would help her up, and back to work she went.
"I’m not a big scorer but on the defensive end, I would say I had a really good year," Boyd said. "What I think made our team so special is the fact that we never let any drama come in between the team, we all had the same goal which was to win districts and go as far as possible and we all truly played for each other."
Perhaps nobody improved more than Bentley. She showed the ability to score and rebound in the post as a junior, but she took it to a new level as a senior. At "6 feet with my shoes on" Bentley used her reach and anticipation to outrebound and score on girls who had 20-30 pounds on her. Throughout the season, if the Hornet shooters were struggling, the team could count on consistent scoring from Bentley to keep them in games as the shooters looked for their shots.
Bentley, too, counts chemistry as a main reason for the team's success.
"We had an amazing year. I am so proud of the season we had, and I think we really proved our team as one of the best in the state," Bentley said. "What made our team so special was that we all bonded as people as well as basketball players. There was never any drama between us and at the end of the day, we all just wanted to win and be the most successful that we could be."
There likely won't be a concluding chapter for this year's Hornets. That chapter may be authored next year. The Hornets will lose three important seniors. But they'll have one of the best returning players in the state in Ella Stemmer. She'll probably set the Hornets' all-time scoring record by Christmas break. More importantly, she'll be a senior leader on a team that will have high expectations.
"Culture always wins. The seniors had a big role and will be missed, and this year definitely provided us with a great foundation," Stemmer said. "As long as we continue with our strong work ethic and positive mentality, the future looks bright."
One of the key pieces next year will be Sophie Canen, a sophomore in her second year on varsity. She's shown the ability to take the ball to the hoop and hit the outside shot. She'll be counted on to score and take a leadership role next year.
"Personally our seniors meant a lot to me and this team with all that they have done," Canen said. "With all of the work that I have put in this year I am really excited to take on bigger roles on this team. With each year my role has grown, and I think that next year and the year after will be the peak of my leadership."
Junior guard Emily Wilczynski saw plenty of action will be back for her third year of varsity. Junior Natalie Sweetland should provide more size and scoring. Freshman Beth Ann Ford will undoubtedly play a more important role, especially underneath the basket. Junior Brielle Eugenie saw her role grow throughout the season. Juniors Reggie Duerst and Ashtyn Mosingo will help with leadership, speed and scoring.
And there are many promising players from the junior varsity roster who will vie for spots, including late call-ups, sophomore Ella Dean and freshman Taylor Kangas.
Coach Roehm said the message to the young Hornets is clear.
"Let's get to work - together. Let's capitalize on the things that made us successful this year and build on each other's unique strengths. Next year's team returns a lot of talent, but it will be a very different team. The only way to recreate the magic of this year is to do the work to improve," Roehm said. "Our seniors this year did an amazing job of evaluating what the team would need and they were focused on what their strengths could bring to the whole. We will need that same type of commitment and trust in each other in order for us to have another season like we did this year."
This year's story was cut short before the finale. But it was one that set new standards for the Saline basketball program. It was authored by girls who will forever be connected by the bonds they formed while going to battle.
"This team had set a goal of making Herstory. They wanted to accomplish goals that no one in Saline had ever done while at the same time forming unwavering friendships," Roehm said. "These girls did more than just write a chapter in the story of our program - they will leave a legacy that will be a theme that runs throughout the future teams to come."