The Middle School girls’ basketball team players will all tell you that they had no idea they would be the eventual Valley Middle School Conference (VMSC) Basketball Tournament Champions.
“When we first practiced, I thought, ‘Okay, we’re not terrible,’” Kaitlyn Morgan ‘23 said.
They won their first game easily, and then continued to win. Then they went to St. Joe’s in Martinsburg, WV. As any VMSC player will tell you, St. Joe’s is a tough venue. It’s a long trip, St. Joe’s is a physical team, and the home crowd is raucous.
“We were winning the whole game, then at the end they came back and beat us by two points,” Morgan remembered. “That was very devastating.”
It was also very motivating. It was the girls’ only loss of the season, and every game for the rest of the season was played with one goal in mind: to become good enough to beat St. Joe’s.
The girls continued to win, with a mid-season highlight coming in the form of the Foxcroft Think Pink Tournament held on January 12th. The girls played three games back to back, but won easily–so easily, in fact, that the R-MA coach, Ms. Kuehl, had to tell her top three players–Morgan, Peyton Kaufman ‘23, and Chichi Ogbuebile ‘23–to stop scoring, or pull them completely.
But although they prepared as best they could, and they rolled through the tournament to earn their spot in the championship game to be held at St. Joe’s, the last few days leading up to that championship threw challenges at the young athletes. The game was originally scheduled for Friday, February 8th. St. Joe’s coach had a prior commitment, so the game was moved to Monday, February 11th. A round of bad weather cancelled St. Joe’s classes, and the game was moved once more, this time to Wednesday, February 13th.
Although the R-MA team left early enough to allow plenty of time to warm-up at St. Joe’s, a traffic snarl on I-81 caused a delay, and the girls hurried in with only ten minutes to spare before tip-off. (In fact, Ms. Kuehl had her players put on their shoes while they were still on the bus!) The girls did a quick stretch routine and lay-up line, but that was all they were allowed, as Ms. Kuehl’s request for additional warm-up time was denied.
Though they were prepared, the girls candidly admit they were scared during the game. “Everybody was praying during the game,” Jorina Vamboi ‘24 said. “When the girls were taking their foulshots, everybody was praying so much.”
“Everytime I had to take a foul shot, I literally bowed my head and started praying,” agreed Morgan. “You can ask Ms. Kuehl; I usually miss my foul shots.” But not during this all-important game. This time, Morgan came through for her team and made every foul shot except for one.
At halftime, the girls were surprised to see that they were up by five points.
During the second half, however, St. Joe’s again fought for a comeback, threatening a repeat of the regular season game. They even took the lead after one of their players made two foul shots in a row with only 15 seconds left on the clock.
“I did what Ms. Kuehl taught me,” said Morgan. “Check in for the ball, then leave and sprint. Peyton with her mighty softball arms chucked it.” Morgan caught the ball, but the girl guarding her prevented her from doing a lay-up, so instead she tried a reverse lay-up, which she normally struggled with in practices. This time, however, she made it, putting R-MA back up on top by one point. A St. Joe’s player took the ball up the court, took her shot and missed; Vamboi got the rebound. The referee blew the whistle, and the girls stopped their play, thinking he was calling a foul.
“You ever hear in a movie, where they literally slow it down, and you hear the beating of the heart in the background?” Morgan asked. “And you’re moving your head, and you’re moving slowly? That’s literally what it felt like. The boys were just spewing onto the court.”
“We were like, ‘What’s happening?’ And then we looked at the clock,” interjected Vamboi.
“I look at the clock,” continued Morgan. “Zero-point-zero. Score of 31 to 30.” The girls were then mobbed by the boys, who were yelling and jumping with excitement.
“Everybody who came up, I gave them a hug, I didn’t care who it was,” Kaufman said. “I started crying. It was so great. I was so happy.”
The story didn’t quite end there. Back on the bus, Morgan’s mother called her to congratulate her. “Who made the winning basket?” she asked Morgan.
“I don’t know,” Morgan remembered telling her. She called out the question to her teammates, who shouted back, “You did!” “Oh,” Morgan said in response. “That was me, Mom.”
Outside of Morgan’s unusual play of making shots she normally struggles with, the girls credited their win to their communication with each other, their hard work, and the loud, enthusiastic support of their fellow students.