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Columnist
A season that inspired so many comes to an end
By John Lemon | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/1/2011 1:24 AM

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Give up? Quit?

Geneva coach Gina Nolan and her Vikings girls basketball team are as smart as they come, but they don't know what those words mean.

Facing its biggest deficit of Monday's Barrington supersectional, down 40-31 to Zion-Benton with four minutes remaining, it seemed about the time teams throw in the towel. The momentum was all on the ZeeBees' side, and nothing was going Geneva's way the Vikings didn't look anything like the team that blitzed Rockton Hononegah for 70 points just six days ago.

The Vikings were cold from the perimeter, they weren't able to penetrate consistently in their half-court offense, and most problematic they weren't getting their normal dose of transition baskets. Everything had to come in the half court, and junior Ashley Santos seemed about the only player whose shot was falling.

But give up? Quit?

Not this coach. Not these players.

Geneva finally was able to rattle the Zee-Bees a little, and after Kat Yelle's steal and assist to Sammy Scofield, that senior duo hooked up again to bring Geneva within 40-35. When Santos came up with a steal and drew a fifth foul on Zion's best ballhandler Juanita Robinson, splitting free throws, Geneva was within 40-36 and I thought the Vikings were about to complete what would have been an absolute stunner of a comeback on a night not even a third of their field goal attempts went in.

Geneva smartly fouled Octavia Crump, who as the Vikings student section correctly chanted, was "O-for-5, 0-for-5" at the line at that point. I figured a miss, a Vikings transition basket, a steal from Zion missing their best ballhandler, another Geneva score. I've seen Scofield, Santos and especially Yelle do that way too many times to expect anything else.

Crump had other ideas, calmly making four straight free throws in the final minute to halt Geneva's comeback and more disappointing to everyone who has had so much fun watching this team play end the Vikings' season.

The tears were in everyone's eyes following this one. But when Geneva walked out of its locerkroom for the final time, Geneva heard just what it should applause from all its fans who stayed and waited to cheer them one last time, and to thank them for all the thrills that their hard work had yielded.

It's the second straight year the Vikings lost perhaps the toughest postseason game to lose, a supersectional, denying them a chance to play under the bright lights at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.

One more win, 32 more minutes, and that state dream is realized.

"This stinks, this is the worst feeling, especially to happen two years in a row," Scofield said.

After going 27-0 the past two regular seasons, Yelle was especially proud of making it to this supersectional after their 21-6 regular season this year. Give up after some painful regular season losses? Quit? Hang your head? Not this team.

"It means a lot more," the future Ohio University guard said. "Last year we were expected to get to state. This year people doubted us to lose in regionals. Each (postseason) game gave us a lot of confidence and made us believe a lot. Now we can take with us whenever people doubt us not just in basketball but other aspects of life. It gave us strength that we can do whatever we set our minds to. I think that is what a lot of us will take with us."

Zion-Benton's entire defensive game plan was to take Yelle out of the game. It worked, holding Yelle to 4 points after she averaged 17.6 this season with such brilliant efforts as a 38-point game against Pickerington North at the McDonald's Shootout. She finishes with 1,420 career points, though it's her ballhandling, passing, relentless defense and will to win that will be remembered much more than all those points.

All the Geneva players were frustrated Monday not only with the loss but feeling the team didn't go out playing their best. Obviously it's hard to win a game scoring 14 points in the second half.

"We just didn't play our game tonight," Scofield said. "We got flustered, we didn't play Geneva basketball and that's why we lost. We needed to pull it together and we couldn't."

So Geneva's season ended at 25-7. The Vikings most certainly did not give up and did not quit. Just getting to the supersectional proved a lot of people wrong.

"I'm sure a lot of people doubted us but we as our team and our coach knew we could get as far as we did and even get down to state if we all really wanted it and I know we did," Santos said. "It was just bad timing and we were off and sad we have to go out this way because we're a special team."

Four-year varsity players Yelle and Scofield played their last game as central figures in a program that's won three straight sectionals with an 88-10 record and made the school's only state appearance in 2009. Six other seniors Kelsey Pease, Katelyn Allen, Brooke Binette, Dori Rogers, Andrea Connolly and Allison Connolly all have made their impact in various ways on the court, in practice and as teammates.

"I love them all," Yelle said. "They are a great group of kids not only on the court but off the court as well. They are really fun to hang out with. They are all a great group of kids and I think that's what hurts the most about the season ending now. We weren't ready to say goodbye. Especially for the seniors I'm the only one who is going to play basketball and I know all the other ones love it just as much as their other sports. It's really tough to see that this is their last game."

One of those is Allen, who said she loves basketball so much she can't wait to play intramurals as a scholarship soccer player at South Carolina Upstate. Scofield, headed to Notre Dame for soccer, certainly knows the feeling.

"I'm not ready to give it up," Scofield said. "It's definitely part of my life I don't want to give up. There's not even words to describe how I feel right now."

Give up? Quit?

Not this coach. Not these players.

And of course the inspiration for so much of this season comes from coach Nolan herself. Tim Pease stepped up and filled in for the first half the season before Nolan was strong enough in her recovery from cancer treatments to return to the lead role in early January.

"She's a great coach and it definitely will be weird not playing for her anymore," Yelle said. "These last four years have been great. I love coach Nolan and I can't grasp the thought of (not playing for her) in college. She taught us all to believe and she was a big inspiration for us. We wouldn't have made it this far without her. We see her and it gives the drive that we wanted to do this for her. It's tough we came up short, that's all I wanted was to give her another state appearance."

On a normal shooting day Monday, Geneva would have had one.

"Considering the beginning of the season I could barely get off the couch and now I'm standing on the sidelines I know personally I think me physically and the team we surpassed what many people expected us to especially when (freshman) Sid (Santos) went down the first day of practice and our lack of height inside," Nolan said. "I told the girls we should be proud of what we accomplished. It's never easy losing at the end but there's not many teams who can say they have won three sectionals in a row."

Not many at all. And how many players can say her school had never won a single sectional title before she became a starter as a sophomore. By the time she's finished three years later, her school has three sectionals.

That's Yelle's story, a winner in every sense of the word. "Irreplaceable" is how Nolan described her. "We haven't been pressed for four years because Kat has been handling the ball."

Yelle and her teammates have given so much to the area basketball community these last four years. It's not just Geneva fans who realize it. When you hear comments from the losing coaches, their praise goes above and beyond what losing coaches typically say.

I won't forget sitting next to Tom Poulin, the St. Charles North boys basketball coach, who was up at Jacobs last Thursday watching the Genvea girls team play for a sectional championship. Why? It wasn't his school. Not his sport. Poulin said he's just a huge fan of watching Yelle, and that he loves watching Geneva because they "play basketball the right way."

He's 100 percent right.

Give up? Quit?

Not this coach. Not these players.

Never.

jlemon@dailyherald.com