After 2 years of coming up short, Jeffers seizes district title with win over Baraga
LAKE LINDEN — Clutching the district championship trophy under his right shoulder, Jeffers head coach Joe Romano received congratulatory hugs with his left arm. He was not about to let go of the district championship that has eluded his team in the cruelest of fates the past two seasons.
“The monkey is off our back, big time,” Romano yelled out while celebrating among Jeffers students and parents.
Finally! They did it.
Jeffers erased the painful memories of years past with a 50-41 triumph over the top-ranked Baraga Vikings Friday in Lake Linden.
This time, there was no Lori Wardynski to make a game-winning shot for Ontonagon to beat Jeffers, 38-36, like in the 2015 district final. Or last year, when Jeffers missed its final two shots on the final possession in a 39-37 heartbreaking overtime defeat to the Chassell Panthers in a district opener.
No, Jeffers finally had a moment to call its own.
“This group deserves it,” Romano said. “These girls are like my daughters. I don’t have a daughter, but I love every one of them like they’re my own kids. They work so, so hard for me.
“You know I’m a screamer, but they take and do everything they can for me. I can’t say anymore about them.”
While the celebration lasted into the night on LL-H’s floor, Baraga head coach Keith Willis sat with his head down in the locker room, reflecting on his 47-year coaching career that came to an end with Friday’s loss. Similar to Romano and his girls, Willis and his players shared hugs and words of encouragement — just on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum as tears flowed and voices cracked while they said their final goodbyes.
“‘I’ve just been so blessed to work with these kids in the last three years,” Willis said. “I think the big coach in the sky was thinking, ‘Keither, you’ve been through a lot of crap in your life coaching, so let me give you a little pat in the head and let you go out with a good taste in your mouth.
“One game does not define a season… Just the transformation of girls basketball at Baraga in the last three years has been heartwarming. I just wish I could have figured it out tonight and done something different to get these kids a win.”
For the first half, the only person who appeared to have it figured out, offensively, was Jeffers senior Alexa Clouthier, who finished with a game-high 21 points and 12 rebounds. But it was her scoring in the first half that ignited Jeffers (17-6); Clouthier scored 18 points on 7 of 12 shooting (4 of 8 from 3) and did most of her damage with a quick release from the left corner against Baraga’s 2-3 zone.
Clouthier’s 18 points gave Jeffers a 28-13 halftime advantage over Baraga.
“I’ve been with Alexa since she was in eighth grade,” Romano said. “She’s just a fantastic kid… I told her, “Alexa, let’s just leave it all out on the floor,’ and she did.”
Jeffers didn’t score until 4 minutes, 44 seconds into the game when Clouthier drained her first 3. But while Jeffers was able to break out of its funk, Baraga could not consistently make shots against Jeffers’ man-to-man look on the perimeter, with the bottom two post players in a zone look.
The Vikings shot just 5 of 22 (23 percent) and had seven turnovers in the first half.
“We were just missing open shots and it started to snowball on us,” Willis said. “We got away from our offensive philosophy a little bit. Our philosophy is to pass the ball, and we didn’t. We’d pass it once and shoot it and didn’t have kids in rebounding position.”
Slowly, Baraga (19-3) crept back in the game, thanks to its signature defense — limiting Jeffers to 5 of 13 shooting and 11 turnovers in the second half — that guided them to a conference title and a top 10 ranking in the state. Senior Carsyn Osterman hit a runner in the lane before senior Casey Mleko banked in a shot off the right block to cap a 10-2 Baraga run, trimming Jeffers’ lead to 41-35 with 3:07 left in the fourth.
“We went into a little bit of a panic situation early in the fourth,” Romano said. “We were pushing the ball and we didn’t need to do that.”
The boisterous Baraga faithful really let loose when Osterman swished a pull-up 3 from the left wing to put all the pressure on Jeffers’ 45-41 lead with 57 seconds left.
On the Jets’ next possession, they missed two free throws, giving Baraga an opportunity to make it a one-score game. But a Baraga turnover and two free throws and a layup from Jeffers senior Julia Nordstrom put any dramatic comeback to rest.
“Joe Romano did a hell of a job,” Willis said. “The kids from Jeffers really played well, so I’m not going to look at the negatives. We had a 19-win season, were ranked No. 1 in the U.P. and won the first conference in 16 years.”
Baraga finished 17 of 51 (33 percent) from the field and had 10 turnovers. Osterman led Baraga with 11 points, while Mleko finished with 10.
The Jets were 15 of 37 (41 percent) with 17 turnovers and a 37-25 edge on the boards.
Jeffers will play Bark River-Harris at 8 p.m. in Kingsford on Tuesday following the Forest Park-Big Bay de Noc matchup scheduled for 6 p.m.
Baraga 3 10 14 14 — 41
Jeffers 9 19 11 11 — 50
Baraga — Megan Kinnunen 6, Justice Kinnunen 8, Mleko 10, Osterman 11, Pittsley 6. Fouled out: None; Free throws: 2-7; 3-point field goals: Osterman 2, Megan Kinnunen 2, Justice Kinnunen.
Jeffers — Klemett 5, Lehto 4, Stevens 8, Nordstrom 10, Clouthier 21, Pennala 2. Fouled out: None; Free throws: 14-26; 3-point field goals: Clouthier 4, Nordstrom, Stevens.