Regional exit not the end for RangersMarch 13, 2017
By WYATT L. STAYNER
PAOLI — You might think this is the end for Forest Park boys basketball, but it’s not.
You might think this is the end because there’s no games left. You might think this is the end because there were tears and reflection and hugging of family and friends. After the Rangers fell to Crawford County 42-38 in the Class 2A regional semifinals Saturday at Paoli, it did look and feel an awful lot like an ending. Yet when Crawford County sneaked past Forest Park with a 6-0 flurry to end the game, it didn’t signify a final chapter to the 2016-17 season as much as it signified an origin point for next season.
“I’m ready to start Monday,” Forest Park coach Jeff Litherland said. “This is what I do. For this to come to an end, it happens every year, but I never look forward to it.”
Forest Park (18-10) felt a mixture of sadness and pride since everything that typified the Rangers’ rise from their 3-5 start to the season was on display: the resiliency, playing through pain, tough defense, timely shooting and a harassing full-court press that once again nearly shifted the entire outcome. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Rangers found themselves in a 30-21 hole. Sam Englert, who scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds, and Trever Zink played less because of foul trouble, and Elliott Rothgerber and Reid Steffe got expanded minutes in their stead.
By forcing turnovers on the Wolfpack’s first four quarter possessions of the fourth quarter, Forest Park turned the nine-point deficit into a two-point shortage in the span of just 90 seconds.
A 3-pointer from Steffe started the run, and Collin Hochgesang, who paced the Rangers with 14 points, added a jumper and two free throws next. Crawford County pushed its lead back to 36-30, but after four straight points by Daniel Lusk (nine points, three assists, five rebounds), a tying bucket by Hochgesang and two free throws from Zink, Forest Park seized a 38-36 lead with 1:21 remaining — its first advantage since late in the second quarter.
“I never gave up on them. I knew they were going to make a run. That’s really just the way they are. They’re tough kids and I love them,” Litherland said. “A lot of them played the whole game and they continued to push forward, and it’s a just a high-quality regional basketball game and one team has got to lose. Congratulations to Crawford, but I’ve got a locker room full of champions and I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.”
Forest Park’s two-point advantage lasted for only 14 seconds, as Crawford County followed with three-point plays from Adam Beasley and Josh Thomas, who scored 16 and 13 points, respectively. Those baskets settled the final score as Forest Park came up empty on its final three possessions of the game. As the Rangers’ pursuit of their first regional title since 2011 was placed on hold, Crawford County (21-6) earned the regional title later Saturday by smothering South Knox 48-32.
“It’s given us a taste of what it’s like and we’ll want more and we’ll come back hungry and we’ll work this offseason to go as far as we can next year,” Steffe said. “We’re disappointed, but we know that we have potential and we won’t have Blake next year, but we feel that we can come back stronger and go farther.”
Blake Mohr was the lone senior on this year’s team, and Forest Park will return its entire starting lineup — all juniors — plus Steffe and Rothgerber, two sophomores who contributed off the bench. This year’s sectional and regional experience should help next season, added Ranger junior Noah Fleck, who was icing a floor burn after Saturday’s game and has developed a reputation for playing through pain amid an array of ailments this season.
“It’ll teach us how to play in bigger games and keep our composure,” Fleck said. “This year gave all of us a lot of experience. I think we really grew up as players and grew a lot closer as a team.”
Mohr was happy with where he’ll leave Forest Park as the Rangers still nabbed the program’s 11th sectional title and first since 2012.
“I think it was just getting over that sectional hump,” Mohr said of this team’s legacy. “The last couple years we came up short and this year we got over it. That’s what we’re going to remember the most. They all got a lot of experience now and I think next year, they’ll be able to get over this hump as well.”
That process won’t start immediately, but it’s not far off, either. Litherland said he’ll start working with available players on individual training within the next month. Summer workouts won’t be too far behind. But first, Litherland wanted there to be a period of reflection and sadness, since he said it can be good to feel the hurt that can double as a motivating agent going forward.
“They’re pretty upset in there, but I thanked them and I pointed out what they did for our basketball program,” Litherland said. “We hadn’t been here since 2012 and we were able to get it done. They brought a lot of excitement into the community. To be able to win that sectional; to be able to get here, play in this atmosphere, compete in this, it’s huge for us. That’s the one thing I asked them to do for the rest of the day, ‘Remember how it felt in there.’ I challenged them to try to get here next year and take it a step further. I know they’ll work. They’ll probably be texting me in a couple weeks wanting to get back in. It’s a very special bond of kids and coaches.”
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