After years of heartbreak, the FHS girls have gotten what they deserve — a return trip to state
There had been tears before, but not like these.
Not like the waterfall that came from Hannah Eberts as she talked about how it felt to finally be going to a state basketball tournament after so many years of disappointment. She tried, but she couldn’t contain herself.
“It means everything; this is everything,” said the Freeman senior, failing miserably to hold back the emotion as it came pouring out late Thursday night, Feb. 28, after the Flyers had taken care of Avon 46-38 in the SoDak 16. “We’ve been dreaming about this for so many years. We’ve been so close for so many years, and finally we made it.”
You want to know what it’s like to shoot free throws with tears in your eyes?
Ask Josie Fuhrmann, who stepped to the foul line four times in the last minute of the game with her team finally in control and their spot at state clearly in hand, save a miracle.
“I already knew it and was crying through my free throws,” the senior said afterward, her voice shaking from the enormity of the moment. “It’s a dream come true. We’ve been wanting this for a really long time.”
So says all of Flyers Nation, which has endured consecutive years of heartbreak going back to the 2013-2014 season, when an overtime loss to Gayville-Volin in the region final set the stage for four one-game-away-from-state losses in five seasons.
Indeed, many-a-senior who was a key part of this established winning program walked off the court for the last time in tears, and not like the ones shed by Eberts and Fuhrmann and so many others Thursday night. And those girls deserve to be named. They are: Mady Pravecek and Nicole Saarie in 2014; Haley Glanzer, Shelby Jensen and Cailey Roth in 2015; Taylor Hermsen and Carlie Muchmore in 2016; Erika Sage in 2017 and Ashley Glanzer and Karli Maske just last year.
“I have always felt the pain that those seniors felt,” head coach Curtis Sage told the Courier. “They had the same dream that these girls had. They worked just as hard and they were probably happier than anybody when they heard that we had won.
“Our girls understand that,” Sage continued. “When we go to state, they will represent our community, our school and our team, but they will also, in spirit, carry those girls’ names. We will take those past teams with us and I think these girls are proud to do that.”
Stakes are high no matter the postseason game, but for the Freeman girls against Avon, they were towering. Not only did this particular group of Flyers have their recent history to contend with, this was the final season for a class of seniors that have been a steady part of the program. Of all the seniors to play for Freeman going back to that 2013-14 season, this group was the largest. Another missed state tournament would have been as devastating as any of the others and probably more so.
“I mean, what would you say to the girls in the locker room after the game?” said Freeman Athletic Director Kristina Sage, wife of head coach Curtis. “There would have been nothing.”
Nobody in the Flyers locker room wanted to know what that conversation — or that silence — would actually sound like, but that meant Freeman needed to take care of business against a dangerous Avon team that had been to the past three state tournaments. And that meant dealing with outstanding senior point guard Lauren Sees, an Augustana University sign-on who can and has single-handedly won games for the Pirates. In Avon’s nine-game winning streak to close out the regular season, Sees scored just under 28 points per game — almost half of the Pirates’ 61 point-per-game average during that stretch. Avon certainly doesn’t survive a three-point scare from No. 7 Scotland and then a four-point win over No. 3 Tripp-Delmont/Armour in the Region 6B Tournament without her.
Containing Sees and her ability to score from anywhere on the floor was Freeman’s top defensive priority heading into the SoDak 16 game, and that meant forcing her to contend with the Flyers’ top defender, senior Dayna Roth, who is as good defensively as Sees is offensively.
“We had to stop Lauren Sees,” Roth said with emphasis after the game, noting that her one and only objective after the laces were tied up Thursday night was “don’t let her get the ball.
“If we did that,” Roth said, “then we knew we got it.”
Sees wasn’t denied entirely — after all, Roth said, “she’s a D2 player” — but she was certainly contained, scoring just seven points in each of the two halves. Freeman’s defensive strategy included a devastating trap by Roth and Fuhrmann after the Flyers had seized momentum in the fourth quarter that halted Sees’ dribble-penetration on the perimeter and created turnovers when Avon badly needed a basket. The Pirates ended up converting on just 15-for-44 shooting from the field, got to the free-throw line just six times and turned the ball over on 14 trips down the floor.
“Our defense was spectacular,” Sage said. “We put the plan in on Monday and they executed it. It was amazing.”
Part 2 of Freeman’s game plan was to win the game in the paint.
“The emphasis was to keep pounding it inside,” assistant coach Chris Maske said. “That was the talk all week. We put it to our post players — that that’s the battle we have to win. We weren’t seeing that much in the first half, but we sure had success in the second.”
Maske is right. While Freeman put points on the board early, they didn’t come from the post. A three-pointer from junior Jaimie Glanzer and a short perimeter jumper from Fuhrmann on an assist by Roth gave the Flyers a quick 5-0 lead. But Avon countered with a 7-0 run of their own to take their first lead of the game and built an 18-13 lead with less than three minutes to play in the half. In both instances, Freeman responded with critical three-pointers — one from junior Emily Miller and the other from Eberts that kept the Flyers close. Avon led 20-18 at the break after the Flyers failed to score on their final three possessions of the half — that included a long heave by Roth at the buzzer that clanged off the back of the rim.
Freeman shot just 6-for-22 in the first 16 minutes of the game.
“We knew coming out of that first half that we were in a close game,” said Miller. “We knew that we contained Sees pretty well; we knew she was getting frustrated and we figured she would come out shooting, come out dribble-driving.”
Miller also knew she and Eberts would be called upon to execute from the post in the second half.
“We weren’t hitting the outside shots,” Miller said, “so we knew we had to put it inside.”
That’s exactly what happened as the teams traded baskets in the third quarter. Miller scored Freeman’s first field goal in the third period that made it 20-20 and then, after an Avon three-pointer made it 20-23, Miller hit another big shot in the paint to keep Freeman right there.
A Roth field goal gave the Flyers their first lead since 5-3 early on, at 24-23, and back and forth it went, with Freeman leading 32-31 heading into the final eight minutes thanks to five-straight points from Eberts — a field goal inside with 1:53 left in the third and a three-pointer with 48 seconds to play that brought down the house.
Through three quarters, there were five ties and 13 lead changes.
But Freeman owned the fourth quarter.
Eberts picked up right where she left off with back-to-back field goals inside that gave the Flyers a 36-31 lead, and a Fuhrmann steal and layup with 6:30 to play put Freeman ahead 38-31 — the biggest lead of the game for either team.
Sage gave major kudos to Eberts, whose scoring burst accounted for nine of Freeman’s 10 points during a 2:06 stretch late in the third and early in the fourth periods. She finished with a game-high 16 points, had seven rebounds and three steals.
“I have never seen her like that,” said the coach, echoing comments he made to the Mitchell newspaper for its report of the game.
“She decided, ‘I’m going to attack and it’s on me’ and she’s never done that before,” Sage told the Daily Republic. “We emphasized all week that this was something she had to do and Miller had to do.”
Freeman never entirely gave back the breathing it found in the fourth quarter, although a sweet Sees move to the basket and layup cut Freeman’s lead to 40-35 and a pair of Avon free throws with 3:20 to play made it 41-37. But Miller connected on a huge basket inside with 2:19 left to put the Flyers in front 43-38 and ended up being the kill shot; the Pirates wouldn’t score again and Fuhrmann closed out the scoring by making three of four free throws — tear-filled eyes and all — in the final 1:02 to seal Freeman’s monumental win.
“I couldn’t believe it; the curse is broken,” said Miller, who finished with 12 points, three assists and a pair of blocked shots. “I looked over and Hannah and Josie were both crying, and I just broke down, too. We were so happy. This means everything.”
The Flyers were 10-for-16 shooting from the field in the second half and owned the game at the free-throw line thanks to their aggressive play down low. Freeman got to the stripe 13 more times than did the Pirates, finishing 10-for-17.
All of it added up to a memorable night at the Corn Palace.
“It’s them — it’s the girls,” Sage said of his thoughts as he watched the game clock tick down and he knew they had it in the bag. “I thought about what they are experiencing right now; you could see it in their smiles and on their faces. It’s not about me or about Maske or our next opponent; it’s about the girls on the court and the girls on the bench.”
“After Joe shot those free throws, that’s when the realization sunk in that we were going to win the game,” Maske said. “Curt is right; it’s just the smiles on everybody’s faces. To sit here and to look out and watch this — to watch everybody celebrating and laughing and smiling and enjoying this moment — that’s what it’s all about. I’m so happy for them.”
Freeman’s ability to keep Sees in check, coupled with its execution of the post-play game-plan in the second half, was the formula that resulted in the Flyers’ emotional win last Thursday at the Corn Palace. But there was something else — an unwavering desire by a committed senior class that, in addition to Eberts, Fuhrmann and Roth, includes role players Kailey Jacobsen and Journey Mehlhaf, who cheer for the team as loudly as anybody.
“We put it to our seniors,” Maske said. “We pulled them in the office on Monday and talked about the teams we had lost to in the past and how they were so senior dominated. Senior leadership — that had to be to our advantage this year, and it was.”
“We wanted it so badly,” Eberts said. “We all knew our roles and our position and what we had to do. That second half, especially, we really figured it out.”
“It’s a dream come true; we’ve wanted this for a long time,” said Fuhrmann. “I knew that they were going to be tough, but I really had faith in my team that we were going to pull it off defensively.”
And she credits the completeness of the team.
“We have five girls who can work together really well,” she said. “It’s really hard to stop that.”
Journey Mehlhaf spoke about the feeling of family that runs deep through this team, and she’s not the only one. Several other girls talked about how special this group is.
“I just love all these girls, the coaches, the sport so much,” said Mehlhaf, who gets limited playing time but accepts her role as one that makes the production players better in practice. “That’s my job and I take it seriously; I give it 100 percent.”
Like her coach, Mehlhaf recognizes what past seniors have meant for the girls basketball program and Freeman Public, and she knows that their contributions didn’t all necessarily come in the form of minutes played, points scored or turnovers forced.
“Credit goes to all the girls who came before us,” she said. “If those girls hadn’t bought into the program and what the coaches were asking of them, we wouldn’t have had the role models to make us who we are. It’s an honor to play for them and to be part of it.”
Jacobsen said she admits that she had hopes of being one of the first off the bench when the season started, but realized that would not be her role on the team. Rather, she would be in a position of support.
“That’s my job,” she said. “I remember when we were playing Parkston and we had gotten down, I was just trying to encourage everyone the best I could. And in practice I play defense so they can get better on offense, and I play offense so they can get better on defense. That’s my role.”
And as the minutes ticked away against Avon last week, Jacobsen and the rest of the bench grabbed hands and were up on every shot, cheering with everything they had.
“We were so excited,” she said. “It was so much fun.”
Dayna Roth was a third-grader in 2010, the last time the Freeman girls played in a state tournament, but she knows on what court the Flyers punched their ticket that season — the very same one on which Roth and her teammates celebrated last Thursday.
“I told the girls before the game that the last time we qualified for state, it was in this gym,” she said after the game. “So I was like, ‘we got this, we got this.’ I was maybe a little too superstitious, but that’s OK. I’m just so happy. This is our dream.”