I t takes a certain kind of person to simply start running with no finish line in sight.
Imagine stretching, and lacing up your favorite pair of sneakers only to be stopped after a few steps. Or maybe a few miles. Or maybe, you run for hours and hours full speed ahead, but still with the nagging feeling that someone is going to jump out and cut you off.
That was this season.
Calumet put on its shoes and took off, but with COVID-19 always looming, the Copper Kings didn’t know when or where that run would end.
They wanted it to end at the Breslin Center.
They got that wish, but life — ever the fickle mistress — didn’t hand them a state title trophy. Instead, the season ended with a 59-53 semifinal loss to Kent City. Their season of unknowns closed with finality, at a nearly-perfect 20-1.
“Throughout the whole year we’ve been working our butts off,” senior Elli Djerf said. “And it was all for the unknown. We had no idea whether it was going to end before the playoffs even started, or if we were going to make it this far. But it was a good experience.”
All except the ending.
With red eyes, brimming with tears peering over their sweat-soaked masks, the Copper Kings exited the Breslin Center court for the first, and last time.
They wanted it to end here, but not like this.
“This is definitely not how we wanted it to go, but it was a great experience being here and playing in front of this crowd,” Djerf said. “I’m so thankful we got here.”
The loss came to a well-balanced Kent City team that also went into the semifinals undefeated, with wide-margins of victory including a 113-point win to open the season.
The third quarter marked the beginning of the end for Calumet, and Kent City’s shooters started heating up.
The Copper Kings executed their zone defense well in the first half, but Kent City continued to get free for open 3-pointers. They didn’t fall then, but in the third quarter, Kent City showed its shooting prowess.
“It is easy to make shots when no one is guarding,” coach Matt Laho said. “We had some bad slides, bad rotations and girls were out of position.”
Kent City capitalized, making four 3-pointers in the third quarter to take an eight-point lead, giving it eight 3s in the contest. After starting the game 0-8 from beyond the arc, Kent City finished by making 8 of its last 20 attempts.
The Eagles also enjoyed balance in that scoring effort, with four girls hitting 3-pointers, and four players in double-figures. Jenna Harrison finished with 15 points, Madelyn Geers had 14 and Kenzie Bowers added 13. Lexie Bowers and Emmalyn Geers recorded 10 and seven points, respectively.
“We just had to relax and play our game,” Emmalyn Gears said. “We knew those shots would even out, and clearly they did because we started making some of them. We just had to relax and know they were going to fall.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Calumet found itself down double-digits.
This is nothing new for the Copper Kings, who clawed back from a 12-point deficit against Glen Lake to earn the trip to the Breslin.
With 3:36 left in the game, Jana Loukus swished a deep 3-pointer. Then, being aggressive on the press, Marybeth Halonen stripped a Kent City player and finished a reverse layup.
With the lead down to 54-48, Calumet wasn’t done yet.
“I knew we were going to make a run,” Laho said. “It was just a matter of time before we got our feet under us on offense. And so, that didn’t surprise me at all. But when they started scoring points, honestly, we needed to play better defense. We knew we had to keep them in the 40s and try to slow them down a little bit, but unfortunately we gave up too many opportunities.”
With 1:40 left on the clock, Djerf drove to the basket. Her attempt rolled off the rim, but Lizzie Torola was there to clean it up with a putback that cut the Kent City lead down to four points.
But while Calumet was scrapping away, trying to get back in the game, Kent City was running a stall.
The Eagles spent most of their last five minutes of possessions pulling the ball out and passing around the perimeter while the exhausted Copper Kings ran from side to side. It was a testament to the poise of Kent City, and also an argument for a high school shot clock — but that’s another matter.
Still, the Copper Kings are too pesky to let it end on a stall, and despite their tired legs, were able to generate enough steals to keep it interesting.
Djerf made a final push for Calumet when the clock read 37.7 seconds. She launched an NBA-range 3-pointer that swished through the rim with ease.
That got the Copper Kings within four once again, but time wasn’t on their side. Kent City capped things off with two more free throws and dealt Calumet its first loss of the season.
Djerf’s 3-pointer was just one instance of many in a game where the senior showed why she is one of the best guards in the UP. Her skill and resilience combined to keep Calumet in the game, even when Kent City looked ready to run away with things.
“I was feeling good,” Djerf said of her offensive rhythm. “I knew I had to step up and make shots and get to the rim, and I was confident that I could.”
Djerf scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had three steals in the game.
She scored 16 of those points in the second half in a variety of ways.
On one possession, Djerf hit a 3-pointer with a closeout coming and a hand in her face. She followed it up with a right-handed finish in the paint — Djerf is a lefty — and then a hook shot post-move on an inbound play.
Her performance served as a summation of what Djerf has done all season for the Copper Kings, and why she should be an easy pick for All-UP Dream Team and a contender for UP Player of the Year.
“She is a great player,” Laho said. “She’s been a great player for us all year. We needed some people to step up with her and unfortunately, we didn’t get that tonight. But you know, she did her best to carry the team on a bad day.”
That bad day would be considered good for a lot of teams, but at this point in the tournament, good isn’t always enough. The Copper Kings needed a little something more to top Kent City.
But Calumet was never out of it, not really, and Kent City wasn’t able to start its celebration until the final few seconds. The Copper Kings were a constant threat.
Marybeth Halonen added 11 points to Djerf’s 22, and Alexis Strom had eight, all on attacks to the rim. She continued to drive fearlessly against a much bigger Kent City team.
Calumet’s race into the unknown ended on a sour note, but the Copper Kings ran until the bitter end.
My apologies to Carney-Nadeau. It’s been you all along. You are the team in Division 4. I should have known. You knew. And I should have too. If every win in your undefeated regular season wasn’t enough. If beating every opponent by 20 points or more wasn’t enough. If a resounding win over one-loss Ewen-Trout Creek in the regional wasn’t...