By Jeremy McDonald
SALEM, Ore.– The road to one of the State Playoffs spots for these two teams in Western Christian and Sheridan will be a long one. The four/five match-up in league plays like the Tri-River Conference usually means you got work your way up win for the At-Large bid to qualify for the State Tournament following Gervais and Salem Academy fighting it out for the one-two seeds out of the league.
With that said, the fifth-seeded Tri-River Conference squad in the Spartans took advantage of the fourth-ranked team in the league Pioneers slow start. Building a 23-11 lead in the second quarter and hanging tough knowing how well Western Christian’s Sarah Halgren and Reese Hall could take charge and get back into this game as they eventually would.
“It was great. It was so good to see our communication on the court and know that we can trust our players and know our players, know the other players as well,” Haley Ayala said. “It was good to gain the momentum and we still had it.”
The Ayala Sisters of Haley and Chloe helped pace the Spartans in the first half. Haley with seven of her 15 and Chloe with ten of her 13 to help build a sustainable lead with the shots beginning to fall for the Pios soon after the 12-point Sheridan lead was built.
Madi Nicol scored five-straight points early in what became a 7-1 run to pull to six of the Sparts at 24-18. By the end of the third quarter it was Western Christian 30, Sheridan 29 thanks in part to the Pioneer defense creating stops and turnovers and Halgren and Hall combining for all 12 of Western Christian’s third quarter points.
“Me and Reese, we’re really connected in a sense. Once one of us is on, the other starts getting on,” Halgren said. “When we start scoring points, it really starts building encouragement on the court and the excitement.”
The Spartans didn’t go down without a fight however as they built a 35-32 lead to open the fourth quarter. Western tied it with a three-pointer, Sheridan hit one of their own only to see the Pioneers hit another one to keep the score even. Reese Hall hands Western Christian a 40-38 with a minute left.
With 30 seconds left and Haley Ayala on the verge of splitting her two free throws, the Pioneers called timeout. Coming out of it, Hall pulled her team over.
“We need to play our best defense. Don’t let them score, we want this ball back and we’re going to stall it. I was like, ‘let’s do it. We need to stay locked in and get this win’,” Hall said.
Western Christian, now holding onto a 40-39 lead attempted to run the clock out, but Sheridan found themselves with the ball. Eventually drawing a foul that sent Chloe Ayala to the line with 1.1 seconds remaining in the game for an one-and-one.
“I was freaking out. I was like ‘no. no. Please don’t make it’. Yeah, I was really nervous,” Hall described the moment Ayala walked to the line.
Then the weirdest heartbreak happened. Ayala made the shot to tie the game at 40. But as soon as the bench stood up to celebrate, a whistle blew it dead. Ayala’s right foot had lifted up on her shot and her toes landed on the other side of the line to nullify the free throw, handing back the ball to Western Christian. The Pios burned off the last second of the game and punched their ticket to face Colton Tuesday night after the 40-39 win.
It’s a better way to end it and it’s going to be weird not to see themselves have an opportunity to avenge the loss as they return to 3A in the Fall. But, the Sheridan girls will be returning a solid core of girls in the Winter who are battle tested thanks to how tough the TRC has been the last two, three years for them.
“It’ll definitely make us push harder and we’re moving to a new league, so we won’t be able to get revenge or anything. But it’s definitely going to make us push harder. It’s going to be hard losses, but we can’t hang our heads down. We gotta keep pushing,” Ayala said. “(The TRC) has definitely made us fight. We know we can fight, we know we don’t have to give up and we just gotta keep pushing. If that’s what it’s going to be in the next league, then we’re going to have to work a little bit harder.”
Halgren finished with 17 points and Hall contributed another 16 points in the win.
Photos By Jeremy McDonald