By Amanda Nguyen
March 7 was day of hope, struggle and heartbreak for the Lady Eagles. The team had defied all odds, once again stepping foot in Tacoma Dome for a state championship title game. Prepared to make history, the defending champions shot for an illustrious three-peat.
With just one more victory, the Lady Eagles would have been the first 3A girls basketball team to snatch the state crown for three consecutive years. But when the final buzzer reverberated throughout the arena, spectators watched the team’s golden opportunity slip from its grasp. The returning victors fell to Lynnwood, 54-44.
The 2014-15 basketball season will be one for Cleveland High School to remember. Fans of the Lady Eagles began biting their nails when the legendary “Fab 4” (Myzhanique “MyMy” Ladd, Makala Roper, Asiyah Davis and Alexia Mefi) – a group that led the team to two triumphant state titles – graduated last spring. The season commenced, however, with seniors Jayde Christopher and Joyce Harrell stepping into the spotlight. Just as hungry for victory as their former teammates, the duo was prepared to take the season by storm. This meant not only leading the team to the state championship for a third time, but also defending a 53-game winning streak against in-state opponents.
The girls got off to a shaky start, barely beating Holy Names in the season opener. The Lady Eagles went on to beat Ingraham and Chief Sealth before the winning streak came to a screeching halt against Lakeside. The reigning State Champions had their 56-game streak broken in a heart-wrenching 41-39 loss.
Though heartbroken, the team picked up the pieces, vowing to move forward.
“Keep your heads up,” Harrell told the team after the loss. “We went four years without losing; that’s a state record … every good team loses; you learn from losing.”
Indeed, the Lady Eagles had not lost a game since 2012, when Harrell and Christopher were just freshmen. But even as the team tried to rally, the hits kept coming. Losses at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix and to West Seattle and Bishop Blanchet back home left the Lady Eagles’ shot at another state title in doubt.
Junior guard Ryshel Sampson said she knew people doubted them. Even some of the team members didn’t think they could bounce back.
“Everyone thought that at the beginning,” she said.
Christopher said the doubt is what fueled the team in the second half of the season.
“We stuck together through our losses, made adjustments and continued to work through our ups and downs,” she said.
The turning point came in January, when the night before the MLK Holiday Hoops Tournament, the team spent the evening bonding in a hotel room. The next day, the Lady Eagles played one of their best games of the season, beating Garfield, 72-40.
“Supporting your team has to do with confidence,” Harrell said. “Once everyone believed in themselves, we started winning games that no one thought we would.”
Christopher said she and Harrell kept each other focused by being each other’s support system. “We’d always send text messages to each other to build up one another before and after games or if anything was wrong,” Christopher said. “We’d always support each other; Joyce and I have a really strong bond.”
Going into post-season play, Cleveland started to get back into its groove, exacting revenge against Lakeside to advance to the Metro League Championship. But the girls were denied a Metro League three-peat when West Seattle shut them out by one point. There was also no District three-peat either. But against all odds, the Lady Eagles pushed past regional opponent Glacier Peak to make it back to the Tacoma Dome.
In the first round of the State tournament on March 5, the Lady Eagles made an immense comeback in their quarterfinal game against Wilson. The girls got off to a late warm-up, and a wrong jersey number in the stats book earned the team a technical foul before the game even start. Cleveland played a dismal first half, scoring only one field goal in the first seven minutes of the game. Just when it seemed like all was lost, a second-half rally by Christopher gave the Lady Eagles the spark they needed to persevere. Harrell scored 15 points within eight minutes, and after some back-and-forth scoring, junior Myla Hightower managed to seal the game with free throws. The team prevailed over Wilson, 53-50.
March 6 marked the long-awaited redemption game against Bishop Blanchet, who the Lady Eagles beat in last year’s state tournament, but lost to back in January. Cleveland dominated their rivals, handing the Braves a 55-48 loss. Senior Aqeelah Williams put up a stunning 25 points. The girls were on an unbelievable winning streak that seemed to silence the early-season critics.
As Cleveland proceeded to battle the Lynnwood Royals in the 3A Championship, the prospect of a three-peat was hopeful. The Lady Eagles came out swinging, dominating the first half. But Lynnwood’s Mikayla Pivec put up 22 of Lynnwood’s 25 first-half points.
“We should have made adjustments to just her, but we didn’t,” Sampson said. “If we could’ve stopped her, it would’ve been different.”
Both Hightower and Harrell ran into foul trouble early; Harrell played the second half with four.
“We also had a very long period of not scoring, which hurt us bad,” Harrell said. “Lynnwood took advantage of that.”
Pivec finished the game with 31 points and 17 rebounds for the Royals, spoiling the hopes of an unprecedented third straight title for Cleveland. The Lady Eagles lost, 54-42.
Aqeelah Williams led the team with 14 points. She, along with Christopher, earned a spot on the All-Tournament 1st team; Harrell was selected to the 2nd team. All three girls have signed with colleges. Williams will be heading to Eastern Washington, Harrell to Boise State and Christopher to Kansas State.
While the team did not bring home a third state title, the girls carried their Eagle pride until the very end, soaring beyond anyone’s expectations. Harrell said she felt blessed to make it to the state championship one last time.
“Even though we didn’t win, I got to play my last high school game in a championship,” she said. “A lot of teams can’t say they did.”
Nope, they sure can’t.
Featured photo courtesy of Cleveland Publications.