By Nate Thompson
NORTON SHORES — The Mona Shores girls basketball team managed to take it its lowest moment of the season and turn it into a positive.
The Sailors fought tooth and nail at rival Reeths-Puffer on Feb. 11, in a thriller of a game that wasn’t decided until Rockets standout Lauren Ross drilled a contested three-pointer as time expired, giving her team a 50-47 victory.
The loss left the stunned Sailors with a less-than-desirable 7-8 record.
The sting from a loss like that could have sunk a lot of teams, but that hasn’t been the case with the Sailors, who haven’t lost since that heartbreaker. Their recent four-game winning streak has included eye-opening victories over quality programs such as Grand Rapids Union, Muskegon and Jenison.
The latter two wins knocked Muskegon and Jenison out of the hunt for the O-K Black Conference championship, and cleared the way for Reeths-Puffer to win the outright title.
So for now, we can consider the Sailors great spoilers. And next, district champions?
With the new wave of confidence that’s spread throughout the roster, Mona Shores is believing anything is possible.
“I think the turning point was the loss to Reeths-Puffer by three,” said senior guard Megan DeLong, a two-time team captain. “It was a lot harder losing a game like that because they are our rivals, but it showed that we’re capable of beating them, seeing how close it was throughout. It gave us more confidence.
“With us being out of the conference race early on, having that sense of urgency kind of went away, and it’s allowed us to play more loose. We’ve kept playing really hard, are just turned into being more of the spoiler.”
The opening matchups in the Division 1 district tournament at Mona Shores are Monday, with Muskegon facing Kenowa Hills and Reeths-Puffer battling Grand Rapids Union.
On Wednesday, the Sailors will face the winner of the Muskegon/Kenowa Hills game. Grand Haven will face either Reeths-Puffer or Grand Rapids Union.
The championship game, pitting the winners of those games, is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m.
Mona Shores head coach Mike Phillips agreed with DeLong that the tight loss to the Rockets showed a lot about his team, but also noted that the Sailors have been competitive against outstanding teams all season. They lost by four points to a very good Rockford team in December, and more recently suffered a four-point loss to a 13-win Cedar Springs team.
The Sailors are emerging after a tough 2018-19 season, which was Phillips’ first as coach. The inexperienced team finished 5-15, and was dealt a number of ugly losses.
But only one senior graduated last spring, bringing the core of the team back this season. Some talented underclassmen have been added to the mix, giving the Sailors the boost they needed.
Still, Phillips said his team had to go through a learning period this year on how to turn a “moral victory,” like they experienced against Rockford, into an actual victory.
“You’ve seen it with senior leaders like Megan,” Phillips said. “She was a part of our district title team in 2017, and then it was a struggle for a couple years. That’s been driving Megan and others all season long to turn things around. In some of those earlier games, when we were not pulling out wins, that just made these girls hungrier, and they’ve continued to work to reach that goal of winning districts again.”
The winning formula has included a balanced scoring attack, physical defense and making key buckets down the stretch. DeLong said it seems like the Sailors have had a different leading scorer every game. DeLong, Brooke LeRoux, Riley Rosenthal and sophomore Olivia Sobczak are all capable of getting hot from the outside.
In the post, Bri Wade shows grit in the paint, battling for rebounds and setting up teammates for shots. Freshman 6-foot-1 center Brooklyn McLemore has also proven to be a valuable part of the Sailors’ success, showing flashes of low-post scoring and gobbling up rebounds.
Still, when the game is on the line, Phillips said he likes to see the ball in the hands of DeLong, a player he remembers watching when she was in fourth grade. Phillips has coached lower levels for boys and girls at Mona Shores since 2006, and was the girls junior varsity coach for four years before being promoted to the varsity position.
“I’ve had some of these kids on my teams in the past, and I’ve known a lot of them for a long time,” he said. “So for me, this has all come full circle. It’s fun to go back and look at the old pictures of those girls and see how far they’ve come along in the sport.
“Now, we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position to contend for a district title.”