By RON DEUTER
CRYSTAL FALLS - Cheers and tears.
Ron Deuter/The Daily News Photo
Forest Park head coach Jeff Syrjanen (left) and assistant Jackie Giuliani (right) listen as Lexi Gussert reflects on the 2013-14 season Sunday at Forest Park High School.
Those gathered inside Eddie Chambers Gymnasium Sunday afternoon shared a wide-range of emotions as the Crystal Falls community celebrated the success of the 2014 Lady Trojans basketball team with a heartfelt and touching welcome home ceremony.
"They went out to the Breslin Center on that final day and gave their best effort," Forest Park athletic director Dwaine Anderson said. "Even though they came up a little bit short as far as a win is concerned, we all know they are all winners in our hearts and always will be."
Beginning with a trip to Wakefield for district play and then on to Kingsford, Sault Ste. Marie, downstate and back, Anderson estimated the team traveled more than 1,600 miles start to finish during its remarkable postseason run.
For the team, Sunday's celebration was a chance to say thank you.
"We can't thank you enough," head coach Jeff Syrjanen said. "I can't tell you what a pleasure it has been coaching those girls this year."
Syrjanen reminded everyone that Forest Park was one of 246 teams in Class D vying for a state title.
"We hope everybody realizes how hard it is to win a state championship," he said. "These girls got to the final game through their self discipline, unselfishness and team togetherness."
Turning to his team, Syrjanen said, "You've given me some of the greatest joys of my life. I thank you for the privilege of being able to coach you ... when you reflect back on the state finals in 2014, may you always cherish the special memories and comradery we shared together."
A large crowd of supporters filled the Eddie Chambers Gymnasium bleachers to welcome home the team. They were treated to the sight of a table full of impressive hardware including the district, regional and state runner-up trophies. Lexi Gussert's Miss Basketball award was also on display.
Gussert, like several of her teammates, became a little bit emotional when she spoke to the crowd.
"We did come up a little bit short and those last two minutes of the game, it's been playing in my head this whole time," she said. "It's not how I wanted it to end, and the what-ifs are going to keep happening. But the biggest one was what if I had never been a part of this team. That's the one that really hurt. If I had never been on this team, I would have never had this great high school experience.
"Winning Miss Basketball, to me, obviously it's a honor, but really, whoopty doo. Nothing beats spending this time with the girls. As I sat there on the bus home thinking about the game, that's when I realized it was a proud moment. I felt lonely at first, and then that just went away. I was proud."
Gussert's perspective was one shared by all her teammates. Each girl on the team was thoughtfully introduced by the coaching staff and then given a chance to address the crowd. The girls shared memories of the season, their trip downstate and other special moments from the past year - able to crack plenty of smiles and share several laughs through the tears.
The common theme throughout the teams' remarks was of the unbreakable bond the girls developed.
"Being with each and every one of these girls the whole year, it was amazing to spend it with them," sophomore Maria Stankewicz said. "These coaches, the whole community, that was my favorite part, being able to share this whole experience with them and you."
"We had the greatest time," senior Kendra Campbell said. "Even though we got second place, we're champions because we got to share all these memories with each other."
Afterward, Syrjanen said the celebration helped his team begin the healing process from Saturday's heartbreaking loss.
"Just being home here and seeing our fans," he said. "We were pretty devastated after the loss. Our spirits are starting to pick up and today certainly helped."