GARDNER — The trophy cases at Gardner Grade School are full, requiring the purchase of another. One might say that the girls basketball team is earning too much hardware.
Last month, GGS sent a team to the IESA State Final for the second straight year and for the fourth time in the last five years. For the first time during that stretch, the Lady Tigers won a game at state. In fact, they won two at the 8-1A tournament at Clinton Junior High, defeating Washington St. Patrick 30-27 in their opener and bouncing back from a 45-28 loss to eventual champion Atwood-Hammond to beat Springfield Little Flower 29-16 for third place.
All five starters — Jenni Price, Celia Barna, Marlana Ferrari, Sydney Perkins and Kira Gleason — and reserves Kayleigh Anderson, Carly Bernardy, Ali Manzello and Lexi Robinson were part of the Lady Tigers' 7-1A state qualifier in 2011. It is a group that has been together since its members were in the fifth grade.
"We play so well together because we know each other so well. We're all pretty much best friends," Price said. "A couple of girls have quit along the way, but we've all played together since then."
This regular season, the Lady Tigers lost just once — to Odell by a 39-35 final. As fate would have it, Odell was one of the teams they knew they would face again at the Mazon-Verona-Kinsman Regional.
The rematch nearly did not even happen, as the Lady Tigers won just 37-33 over Ransom in their regional opener.
"Ransom had a real aggressive team this year — very physical — which the girls have a hard time with at the beginning of the game," GGS coach Rhae Wise said. "We had a hard time getting it in to our center, Marlana, and they shut Celia down also. Jenni had a couple of good steals like she always does for some layups. We just fought hard 'til the end and came up with a win."
For three quarters, the regional championship game against Odell was as close as might be expected for the Lady Tigers. The score was tied at 9-9 after the first, and the Lady Tigers took leads of 17-13 at halftime and 23-20 after the third quarter. From there, Wise says, "Ceila and Sydney stepped up and took the game over," and the Lady Tigers ended up winning 36-20.
"I have told the girls every year we have to win the fourth quarter to win games, and we condition very hard to do that. We have never ran out of gas," Wise said.
GGS played another close game with Ottawa Marquette at the Pontiac St. Mary's Sectional but pulled away late to win 29-19 and clinch a return to state. There, the Lady Tigers faced a St. Patrick team that finished third in the state in 2011 in their opener. Led by 15 points from Barna and 10 from Price, they prevailed. Wise says that free-throw shooting — an area in which the Lady Tigers struggled most of the year — was the difference.
But the Lady Tigers' fortunes quickly went south against Atwood-Hammond. By the end of the first quarter, they were down 16-6. Worse, their point guard, Price, left with a head injury.
"I ended up with a slight concussion. ... I was only cleared to play again on the day of the third-place game," Price said. "We knew (Atwood-Hammond was) really good, but we set a (goal) that we weren't going to lose by 20 points, and we did that."
The Lady Tigers bounced back from that loss to outscore Little Flower in every quarter and finish in third place. Barna's 14 points were a GGS high, and Perkins had nine.
"They came to play. One thing about this team is they don't like to lose.That loss made them work that much harder. It was time to put it all out there," Wise said. "This would be their last game of their grade-school careers, and there are only two teams that can win their last game — let's be one of them."
Barna, who led the Lady Tigers in scoring in both state wins, was a player that Wise says she could play anywhere, though officially she was a forward.
"I started off in fifth grade as a point guard," Barna said. "It wasn't until seventh grade that Rhae came in and started playing me as a forward. ... I feel I could handle what she asked me to do."
Price, the point guard for both of the group's state-qualifying teams, was another key member of the Lady Tigers, especially on offense.
"Pretty much what we tried to do was get the ball into our big people for open shots," Price said. "I just tried to get the ball to whoever was open. We had so many people who could score."
Barna says there was another person who was key to the Lady Tigers' success.
"Rhae was such a good coach," Barna said. "She not only pushed us to be our best and worked on our fundamentals and stuff, she taught us good sportsmanship. We learned to get along well with each other and to respect our opponents."