For The Daily News
Stephen Anderson/Daily Mining Gazette
Forest Park sophomore Sierra Robarge drives to the basket against the defense of Baraga’s Jenna Heikkinen Monday.
BARAGA - Baraga has gone from playing closely contested games against strong Calumet and L'Anse teams to losing to a now 3-13 Jeffers team last week, so Vikings coach Mariah Dunham had no idea what to expect when her squad hosted the Upper Peninsula's No. 2 Class D team, Forest Park.
She got a gutsy effort from her squad Monday, but Division I prospect Lexi Gussert's triple-double paced the Trojans to a 68-56 win.
"Are we going to be the team that gets blown out by 50 or are we going to be the team that comes out and battles and gives a team some problems? We were actually the team that came out to battle tonight," Dunham said. "I'm really, really proud of my girls. It was just all-out effort."
Gussert, still only a junior, has already garnered Associated Press Class D all-state accolades twice, and she scored right on her season average of 31 points Monday, while adding 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
She scored 19 of her points in the Trojans' 30-26 first half, but her ability to accurately and crisply dish the ball to open teammates despite constant double teams wore the Vikings down more than anything in the second half.
"The bottom line is most teams don't have a four-quarter answer for the Gussert girl. She's the real deal," Forest Park coach Jeff Syrjanen said. "She makes everybody else around her play better. Tonight her passing was as important as her shooting."
While the Vikings understandably focused their efforts on Gussert, the Trojans gave nine players at least 10 minutes each, and Jessica Bawyn scored 18 points off the bench - most of them from the weak-side low post after collecting Gussert's lightning-quick feed.
"We're not afraid to use our depth," Syrjanen said. "We figure eventually it's going to wear teams down, and I think tonight that worked for us."
But early on it was Baraga's intensity that set the tone against the Trojans, who were coming off their only loss of the season last Thursday, 52-51 at home against Class B Kingsford.
After a 4-0 Trojan start to the game, Rebecca Larson got the hosts on the board with a right corner triple, and she buried another three minutes later to make it 14-8 Baraga, capping off an 11-2 run. The Vikings led by as many as eight until Gussert's only three of the game made it 18-13. Baraga led 20-15 after one.
"This team is used to being behind and they come back," said Syrjanen, who cited at least three games where his team trailed by double digits. "It's not unfamiliar territory We weren't sure what their shooting abilities were, and in the first half, the first quarter especially, they lit it up on their threes. We got out of our zone and went into a man and wanted to see what they could do."
After a 20-point first quarter, Baraga was held to just six second-quarter points. Gussert scored eight more points and the visitors went into the locker room up 30-26.
"The key is that we don't quit. We're not panicking. You don't see us just launching threes to get back in the game," Syrjanen said.
In fact, the Trojans only attempted seven threes all game, making two of them. Baraga, by comparison, fired 21 from downtown, connecting on five.
Forest Park never needed triples. They just waited for Gussert to get triple-teamed so she could find an open teammate on a back-door cut.
"Lexi was able to find the off person more," Dunham said. "Credit to her, she's a great all-around player, great passer, great scorer, and that's what's going to make her special at the next level is the fact that she does have court vision."
Dunham should know, as a former two-year letter winner at the University of Wisconsin. Gussert, who now has 1,581 career points in less than three seasons, has been getting attention from several Big Ten schools, and Dunham has offered to help her one-on-one through the Next Level Basketball Training Program she co-owns.
Baraga had the game tied at 32, 34 and 36, and got within three points at 50-47 after Larson opened the fourth quarter with a three, but Bawyn scored seven points in the final stanza and Maria Stankewicz hit FP's second and last three of the game to make it 58-51 with five minutes left to help seal the win for the now 15-1 Trojans.
Baraga (6-8) had four players tally double-digit points, led by Jenna Heikkinen's 14. Brittany Nieskes, Larson and Shannon Fish tallied 12, 11 and 10, respectively. Nieskes, Larson and Katie Schjoth all had six rebounds, and Nieskes, Schjoth and Fish all had three assists. The Vikings also hit all 15 of their free throw attempts in a game where both teams committed 15 fouls.
"This game was a good statement, but it all matters Thursday when we have our conference game," Dunham said.
Forest Park plays at west Iron Thursday.
Forest Park 15 15 20 18 - 68
Baraga 20 6 18 12 - 56
Forest Park Lexi Gussert 31, Jessica Bawyn 18, Maria Stankewicz 5, Kelsi Hendrickson 5, Gina Graff 4, Sierra Robarge 3, Adel Isaacson 2; FT: 12-17; Fouls: 15; Fouled out: none; 3-point field goals: Gussert 1, Stankewicz 1.
Baraga Jenna Heikkinen 14, Brittany Nieskes 12, Rebecca Larson 11, Shannon Fish 10, Katie Schjoth, Melissa Putala 4; FT 15-15; Fouls: 15; Fouled out: Larson; 3-point field goals: Larson 3, Heikkinen 2.