St. James girls basketball shows support for special fan in state quarterfinal loss to Liberal
TOPEKA — As the No. 8 seed and the only team in the Class 5A state tournament field with a losing record, St. James Academy's girls basketball players knew that the odds were stacked against them going into their quarterfinal matchup against top-seeded Liberal on Thursday at the Kansas Expocentre.
While the Thunder came up short in a 62-29 loss, they had several more reasons to leave their hearts on the floor besides trying to pull off the upset. The Thunder took the court with a different look on Thursday — wearing white ribbons on their warmup t-shirts. The ribbons were a way to remind the Thunder that their battle against Liberal paled in comparison to the one that one of head coach Samantha Paradise's biggest fans is going through.
"It's my mom," Paradise said before a long pause to gather her emotions. "She was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer and today she actually had a bad spot, so she was in the hospital. So the girls made all of these to kind of rally behind her and let her know that we're with her."
Rallying through times has been something that the Thunder know all too well after losing freshmen Abby Dunsmore and Lindsay Russell to season-ending knee injuries and having four players miss time with concussions. The Thunder had to figure out a way to come together and overcome their shooting struggles in the first quarter. St. James couldn't shoot Liberal out of its 2-3 zone, and trailed, 12-0, after the first eight minutes.
Whether it was senior Mary Goetz attacking the basket or sharp-shooting juniors Claudia Russell and Torri Kempf firing up 3-pointers, nothing was going the Thunder's way in the first quarter.
"I think I missed like five layups that I normally make in that first quarter. Liberal is a very good team," Goetz said. "They definitely knew how to defend us, so props to them on that. I wouldn't say it was nerves. It was just a little bit of bad luck there."
Kempf and Russell gave the Thunder (8-15) the spark that they desperately needed in the first minute of the second quarter by knocking down shots from behind the arc to cut the deficit in half. Russell drilled four 3-pointers en route to netting a game-high 14 points. The confidence of Russell grew throughout her junior season after she missed all of her sophomore year.
"Coming back from not being able to play last season off of an ankle surgery, I was really proud of myself for coming back the way that I did from that," Russell said.
The 3-pointers from Russell and Kempf briefly shifted the momentum in favor of St. James, but Liberal (22-1) used a balanced offensive attack to end the half on a 15-3 run. Liberal had four players score in double figures with Katie Horyna leading the way with 12 points. Ali Lucero, Machia Mullens and Whitney Hay added 11 points apiece.
Despite facing an 18-point halftime deficit, Goetz's philosophy didn't change. The St. James senior continued to get to the rim, and her shots started to fall in the second half. Goetz scored the Thunder's first three baskets after the break to trim the Liberal lead to 14. The experience of playing on the state tournament is one that Goetz won't forget, and one that she never fully envisioned until the Thunder upended Lansing in the sub-state title game.
"It's been kind of surreal because this is something that I've always wanted all four of my years. I don't think we ever truly had the mind-set for it for this year and it was really just taking it game by game instead of just focusing on sub-state," Goetz said. "It was just realizing every game that we are in the game as long as we just play with all of our heart. With this experience, I feel like we should be here. It feels right because I know my team couldn't have given more to get here."
The third quarter was also the best stretch of the game for Russell, as she scored eight points after sinking two treys and two free throws. The duo of Russell and Goetz still weren't able to match Liberal, as the top seed built its lead to 20 by the end of the third.
The final eight minutes featured a wave of emotions for Goetz. With 3:15 remaining, Goetz landed awkwardly before letting out a loud shriek and falling to the ground. It was a pain Goetz had experienced, but it could have been much worse. Paradise cracked a joke to help ease the mood as Kempf, Claudia Russell and seniors Claire Kearney and Maddie Russell gathered around Goetz while trainer assisted her.
"I got a really bad cramp in my left leg, which I've never gotten before. I just went down, but we were all just kind of laughing there," Goetz said. "Like, ow, but it was kind of fun because we all just got kind of a timeout of like three minutes to kind of laugh together as I tried to stretch it out. It went away. It's just barely there now."
Goetz went to the bench after she was helped to her feet, but that wasn't how she wanted to leave the court for the last time. The St. James senior returned to the floor and played through the pain before Paradise subbed her out for a more celebratory exit. Goetz and Paradise shared a long hug before the senior guard took her seat.
"It's hard to see players like that leave your program because she motivated me day-in and day-out to be the best coach and leader that I could be," said Paradise of Goetz. "Her resiliency, her passion, her enthusiasm, her heart is just so good. She's the type of player that I will remember for years to come."
While Goetz helped the St. James girls cross country team to a state title in the fall and has served as a jack of all trades for the Thunder track and field team, her senior basketball season was unlike anything she's experienced in her athletic career.
"Coach P, I don't think I've honestly felt closer to another coach than her just because she shows us her heart just as much as she expects us to show it in the game," Goetz said. "We all are coming together for her mom and constantly praying for her because we love her mom. I'm not going to say as much as she does, but a whole heck of a lot."
The senior leadership from Kearney and Maddie Russell has not gone unnoticed by Paradise in her first season at the helm. While Paradise made sure that several underclassmen got their share of varsity minutes, she said that the growth of her young players has had a lot to do with the three seniors.
"I am so lucky to have coached these three for their senior year and for my first year. Maddie Russell did not play lots of minutes," Paradise said. "She gave me the motivation from the bench every play. Whether down or up, I could hear her voice cheering on her teammates. That just kept pushing me as a coach."
Paradise added, "Claire Kearney, who is not even used to basketball per se, I gave her a challenge last spring to step up and be the post player that this team needed. She won most-improved player for the team, (which was) voted by the team, unanimous by the team and that makes me proud to see someone like that who has never played a varsity minute step up and do that."
When Goetz, Kearney and Maddie Russell arrived at St. James, the Thunder were just coming off of their first state tournament appearance in school history. It was a big deal for Claudia Russell and her teammates to send the three seniors off in style.
"Making it to state this year meant everything to our team," Claudia Russell said. "I'm really glad we could make it here for the seniors one last time. It was an unreal experience."
Now that Claudia Russell has had a taste of the state tournament, she's champing at the bit to make a return to Topeka next year with a strong nucleus coming back. Kempf, Olathe Northwest transfer Jenna Wilkins and Claudia Russell will give Paradise another senior trio to build around. Sophomores Anna Feldkamp, Katelyn Hall and Madi Biondo and freshmen Claire Worthington, Regan Bruggeman, Anna Staley, Erin Kelly, Dunsmore and Lindsay Russell will also look to take their respective games to the next level.
"There is just so much potential on this team that we've seen this season and there's so much more that they can do," Goetz said. "I can't wait to come back and just kind of watch what we started and watch it just go higher and higher every year."
As Paradise continues to build the program going into her second season, she plans to keep the memories from Thursday's game with her. While losing the game stung for Paradise, all she needed to do was look at her ribbon to realize that she had logged a win by getting her team to buy into her coaching and life values.
"It means that we're a family and through all of the adversity and struggles — which we've had plenty this year — each time you turn around there's someone patting you on the back or saying, 'We'll pray for you,' or 'We've got your back, coach,' or 'Let's get in a group hug,'" Paradise said. "That's the type of team that I'm so blessed and so thankful to coach."
ST. JAMES (29)
Claire Worthington 2-5 0-0 6, Madi Biondo 0-0 0-0 0, Claudia Russell 4-12 2-2 14, Jenna Wilkins 0-0 0-0 0, Claire Kearney 0-1 0-0 0, Torri Kempf 1-9 0-0 3, Mary Goetz 3-17 0-0 6, Katelyn Hall 0-1 0-0 0, Anna Feldkamp 0-1 0-0 0, Maddie Russell 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 10-47 2-2 29.
Katie Horyna 3-8 6-8 12, Ali Lucero 3-5 4-5 11, Audrey Gilmore 2-4 2-2 7, Reece Hay 0-0 0-0 0, Tania Minjarez 1-1 1-2 4, Machia Mullens 3-9 5-8 11, Whitney Hay 4-4 0-1 11, Kimberly Alarcon 1-1 0-2 2, McKenzie Kapp 0-0 0-0 0, Reagan Watt 0-0 0-0 0, Aubrey Warden 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-34 20-30 62.
St. James 0 9 14 6 — 29
Liberal 12 15 16 19 — 62
3-point goals: St. James 7-22 (Claudia Russell 4, Worthington 2, Kempf); Liberal 6-11 (Hay 3, Lucero, Gilmore, Minjarez). Fouled out: None. Turnovers: St. James 10, Liberal 7.