Denner: Lady Buffs' phenomenal year over too soon
The premature ending was a cruel and surreal fate for the Madras girls basketball team, which seemed due for another shot at the 4A state tournament.
The Lady Buffs made their goals clear at the beginning of the season. They checked most of them off their list, except for the biggest one — reaching the state tournament in Forest Grove.
It made Friday's decisive game — a 60-57 loss to Valley Catholic — all the more tough to accept, especially when taking into account the four Madras seniors who wanted nothing more than one last shot at the state tournament.
Of those four, Lynden Harry and Kaliyah Iverson were key players in the program for each of their high school seasons, first learning from their older teammates, then breaking through as sophomores playing in the state tournament.
When junior year began, they put their own fingerprints on the program as leaders, and joined forces with first-year Madras varsity players Alesha Freeman and Ellise David, rounding out the now-senior group of four.
"I hate to see the season come to an end like it did tonight, especially with the four seniors," Madras head coach Zach Lillebo said.
"It's tough to see them go out under these circumstances and not get there to that final site, but unfortunately there's an end to everything."
As Lillebo noted afterwards, each of the four departures creates a huge hole to fill.
Although David found consistent playing time hard to come by, she never complained, Lillebo said, and she put in the effort off the court, doing fundraisers off the court and other events, more so than a majority of players.
"There's not one complaint about playing time or anything like that; she works her butt off," Lillebo said.
Freeman was somewhat of an outsider when she transferred to Madras from Culver as a junior, but she almost immediately earned the respect of her teammates as a high-motor player and fierce competitor.
"Madras would be a tough place in the girls program to fit in, and she found her niche — that was the work ethic, diving for loose basketballs and making our other girls better," Lillebo said.
Iverson did a little bit of everything during her high school career, whether that meant carrying the team offensively, grabbing rebounds or facilitating other teammates.
She started the year off as somewhat of a sixth man for Madras, but after she had a strong start to the season, Lillebo had no choice but to put Iverson back into the Buffs' starting lineup.
"This year, she worked her way back into the starting lineup and basically took back what she thought was hers," Lillebo said.
Last but certainly not least, Harry's presence will be missed on the Madras basketball hardwood by coaches, teammates and spectators.
With under a minute to go in Friday's game, after Harry missed a shot and the probability of a win was starting to slip away, she knelt down, looking toward the floor, showing a rare hint of vulnerability in her otherwise stoic armor.
Valley Catholic's only senior, Noelle Mannen, walked over and briefly knelt next to Harry with an arm around her. Valley Junior Callie Kawaguchi then patted Harry on the back as they walked down the court with the clock stopped. It was a moment of sportsmanship from opposing players, but perhaps more so, mutual respect.
"(Lynden) is an amazing player and she deserves everything," Kawaguchi said after the game. "We were even talking in the locker room that, if she would've won this game, we would've been happy for her, because she's an amazing player and she's going to do great things. I just kind of wanted to go over and pay my respects to a great player."
It takes a rare player to elicit those words from opponents — in a playoff game, no less.
But that's the kind of impact Harry had during these last four years, not only on her team and community, but also the statewide 4A girls basketball landscape.
The fact that she and Iverson will end their high school careers with one appearance at the state tournament in four seasons feels unfair to both of them.
Yet this chapter had to end sometime, and in the not-so-distant future, it is likely that all four seniors will move on to college this fall. And, although nothing is finalized, Harry and Iverson are good enough to be playing basketball at the next level.
As I interviewed Harry after the game, a Valley Catholic assistant coach walked by to ask if she would be playing basketball next year.
"Yes," Harry started, "I have no idea where though."
The Valiants' assistant simply replied, "Please do."
While this chapter is ending, many are excited to see where the next one begins.