By RON DEUTER
IRON MOUNTAIN - Tonight's Class D state semifinal between unbeaten Forest Park and Athens puts the No. 1 Lady Trojans up against the best defense they've seen all season.
"They are going to be tough," Forest Park head coach Jeff Syrjanen said. "They are not a big scoring team but a tough defensive team. They come at you pretty hard."
The fifth-ranked Indians, a 39-33 quarterfinal winner over Lansing Christian Tuesday, are playing in the state semifinal for a third straight season. They'll provide the Lady Trojans with a much different type of challenge than Posen did Tuesday.
"They don't have a big girl like (Korynn) Hincka to worry about," Syrjanen said. "But they are pretty solid. They put on pretty good pressure."
Forest Park fell to Athens in the state semis two seasons ago, 61-48, despite 34 points from then-sophomore Lexi Gussert.
"It is going to come down to how we handle the pressure," Syrjanen said. "Two years ago we didn't. But we're a better team now. We have to prove it on the floor."
Athens (22-3) plays a mostly Class C schedule and competes in a much tougher conference than the Lady Trojans. The Indians won the Big 8 Conference this season.
"And they always do well in that conference," Syrjanen said. "They are patient. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They put their money on the defensive side of the ball. They play good defense, and we'll see how we can deal with that."
Syrjanen said the Indians shoot a lot of free throws. In Tuesday's quarterfinal against Lansing Christian, Athens trailed by one after three quarters before heading to the stripe 19 times in the final frame.
Allison Fuller, a junior who led the Indians during the regular season with a 13.5 points per game average, hit a 3-pointer with 6:05 remaining to put Athens up 28-26. She had 11 of her 14 points in the final quarter. Fuller was named an all-state honorable mention Tuesday.
Fuller, in her third varsity season joins returning seniors Audrey Oswalt and Allysha Beal as the Indians' main trio. Oswalt averaged 12.1 points per game and 7.8 rebounds. She had a season-best 20-board performance in Athens regional championship game. In Tuesday's quarterfinal she scored 14 points. Beal scores nearly 10 points per game.
But defense is where it's at for Athens, and the veteran threesome all average multiple steals per game. As a team, the Indians come up with 15 swipes per contest.
Syrjanen expects a much better showing from the Lady Trojans than the game two years ago.
"On thing for sure is we have a lot more experience," he said. "We played tougher tournament games since then. We did crack to the pressure last time. But we have a few more scorers, a little more balance."
Detroit Free Press writer Mick McCabe, aka Son of Swami, likes the Lady Trojans to win by a bucket 62-60, saying, "SOS remembers two years ago, also in the semifinals, when a Crystal Falls sophomore named Lexi Gussert lit up Athens for 34 points, but Athens still won. Athens' Allison Fuller is capable of lighting up any team, and Athens will need all the firepower it can find."
Tip-off for tonight's game is 6:50 p.m (Central). Along with the game airing live on a local radio station, fans can take advantage of coverage through the MHSAA. All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.TV on a pay-per-view basis. All four Finals will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit, the Class D and A title games on FOX Sports Detroit's primary channel and the Class C and B games on FOX Sports Detroit-PLUS. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.
Marine City Cardinal Mooney (19-5), a team Syrjanen referred to as a sleeper, takes on Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (20-5) in the other Class D semi, to be played ahead of the Forest Park game.
Class D state championship game is scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. (Central).
The Lady Trojans slept in St. Ignace following Tuesday's quarterfinal victory at Sault Ste. Marie. The team stopped in Cheboygan for a 7:30 a.m. practice Wednesday before completing the trip to East Lansing. Unknown to everyone on the bus other than Gussert and the Lady Trojans coaching staff was the planned detour to Detroit Wednesday afternoon for Gussert to accept the Miss Basketball award.
Syrjanen said a few girls noticed the route going an unexpected direction and began to question what was happening. That's when the news was shared about Gussert's honor. Syrjanen said the girls broke out in cheers and applause for their teammate.