DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – The Sauk Valley Skyhawks women's basketball team had not played past the Region tournament since 2008.
After a long wait and a long bus ride to Devils Lake, N.D., the Skyhawks started slowed, but were able to battle back before falling 82-71 to Lake Region State in the District D championship game.
Lake Region State coach Duane Schwab had one question for his players before Saturday's NJCAA District D title game: How bad do you want to get to nationals?
Schwab had written it on the whiteboard. It was the first thing the Royals noticed upon walking into the locker room, a simple question, for which there was an even more simple answer.
LRSC players were thrilled with the win not only because it meant that Lake Region State (29-4) is heading back to the national tournament, but also for what it means to Schwab, now coaching in the final games of his legendary career.
“I can’t even express how excited I am right now,” Sarah Schafer, a sophomore guard, said.. “Being that this is his last team, he needed to get there one last time, and he wanted it just as bad as we did.”
“To be a part of his last 2 years at Lake Region, and to be a member of this team now, it’s unbelievable,” Sophomore Leslie Hairston said. “It feels amazing.”
The Skyhawks (23-6) played Lake Region raillied in the second half, as they chipped away at what was once an 18-point deficit.
Down 61-43 with 12 minutes to play, Sauk Valley went on to shrink the deficit to nine with just over 3 minutes remaining. The Skyhawks trailed by five points, 75-70, with under 2 minutes to play, but that is the closest that the visitors could get as Lake Region closed the game out with clutch shooting from the free-throw line.
The waning moments of the second half were easily the most troubling for LRSC to endure.
“We buried some big time 3s, made some big free throws, but at that point in the game, we were just hoping we could hang on,” Schwab said of his team’s second-half performance.
Sheldeen Joseph did the damage for Sauk Valley, finishing with a game-high 26 points, 15 of which were scored in the second half. Rock Falls graduate Jordan Giddings had 16 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots.
For Lake Region, Jordyn Kirk led the way again with 21 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Leslie Hairston fell one rebound short of a double-double, recording 14 points along with nine rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end of the floor.
Schwab is hopeful of his team’s chances, too, but his focus after Saturday’s win wasn’t about winning and losing, but more about the effort that his team gave all season long.
“The kids played real hard, and they did the things that they needed to do,” Schwab said. “If we win, great. I think the most important thing is just how hard these girls worked to get to this point, and now we go on from here.”