By Mike Monahan

Lake Land women’s basketball coach Dave Johnson got off the team bus Sunday at 7:45 p.m. and held the NJCAA Division II National Championship trophy aloft in front of 100 fans, including several of the LLC sports teams as well as family of the players and others.

The night before, the Lakers had made school history by becoming the first team to win a national title, beating Johnson County 53-49.

“I don’t know if I have ever had a team play as hard and as physical as this team did last night,” Johnson told the crowd. “That was an excellent team we played last night. They just kind of willed their way to win. We were down five (42-37) in the fourth quarter and we called timeout. Everybody was calm and they just went out and did it.”

Harley Barry was ultimately named the Most Valuable player while Kamaria Gant and Tresoir Newson were also on the all-tournament team.

“This is so thrilling for the college community, our first national championship,” said Lake Land president Josh Bullock. “When the team was preparing to leave we talked with them and said ‘this is the year.’ We knew it was after the devastation of last year, when a week before the tournament started COVID-19 canceled the tournament. It was heartbreaking, but we knew this was the year and they did it. As a college community, we are so proud of all they endured, all they went through to have a season and they did it. I am so proud of the team and coach Johnson and his 19 years, and he brought home the national championship!”

The Lakers arrived a little later than originally planned, but it didn’t matter as the excitement grew the closer the bus came to campus. Posters were passed out with a team photo taken after the game ended. The men’s basketball team had a larger poster with the team photo and welcome home at the top of the poster. 

Nancy Gass, grandmother of Sullivan graduate Josie Orris, one of nine sophomores on the team,  attended the semifinal and championship game. 

“It was so exciting,” said Gass. “Coach Johnson was so happy he was in tears. It is unreal to think that our little school could get this far. They are also a team with a high grade-point average.”

The sophomore group includes Orris, Joanna Schultz, Barry, Gant, Newson, Abby Weis, Jaelyn Riggleman, Shanie Schoonover, Elizabeth Buescher, and Mikayla Sirjord. They finished 55-5 (.917) in two seasons. 

Lake Land guard Abby Weis signs posters celebrating the team’s championship run. (Photo/Chet Piotrowski)

Former Lake Land player Tiffinie Tucker, an assistant coach at Sullivan High, attended with her family. Sullivan’s head coach, incidentally, is another LLC alum, Sheri McCain. 

“Sheri (McCain) and I always talk about leaving our legacy behind for us at Sullivan in high school,” said Tucker. “They are leaving their legacy behind here. We told them (Orris and freshman Avery Still, another Sullivan grad) they will always have that banner now that says, ’National champions’ and the first ones. ‘Every time you go into the gym, you are always going to see that. It is always going to be yours. We are pretty excited. It is a privilege and honor for them and a lifetime of memories.”

Tucker said she was not nervous at all when the team trailed by five in the fourth quarter because she knows these players can score 13 points in even a few minutes. Which is what they did afterward, outscoring Johnson County 13-2 in the final four minutes of the game.

“They are going to get to pull even better kids and more kids will want to come here because of that,’ Tucker said. “It is incredible. Lake Land had nine area kids play and that is great.” 

Lake Land softball player Carson Cole decorates a banner with ‘CHAMPION!” prior to the arrival of the women’s basketball team Sunday afternoon as they journeyed home from winning the NJCAA Women’s Div. II National Championship game in Hickory, N.C. on Saturday. (Photo/Chet Piotrowski)

Lake Land men’s player Anthony Scales, a freshman from Zionsville, Ind., was impressed bu gthe team’s passing. “They had good ball movement, and my teammates and myself thought they are similar to the San Antonio Spurs as they are really fundamentally sound and they play great defense as well,” he said. “They (LLC) were fun to watch.”

Nichole Jackson, Lake Land athletic director Bill Jackson’s wife, played in a national tournament at NAIA Oklahoma Christian. She said being denied that choice, as last year’s team had been, is incomprehensible.

“We made it nationals at Oklahoma Chrisitian and I can’t even imagine not getting to play,” Jackson said. “COVID took it away last year and I am so excited for them to get to go this year, and to win is a cherry on top. It is the best. It was so exciting to see all of their hard work pay off. All of the players and coaches did a great job. I am so happy for them. This will help showcase the great coaches that we have and the great players that we bring in.”

Orris, who played in 14 games, said her primary role was to make her teammates better during practices. “I challenged them and myself as well because they are a very talented team and that made me even better,” she said. “We helped them prepare them for the games.”

Orris said they had been working on winning the title all year. 

“I told my parents after everything that happened last year, getting this national championship made everything with COVID acceptable,” Orris said. “We (Still) never in my high school career could grasp a state championship. I told coach Tucker ‘You know we could not get our state championship, but I guess our national tournament will do.’ ”

Members of the Lake Land women’s basketball team react to seeing the windows of the college decorated for their arrival after winning the NJCAA Women’s Div. II National Championship game in Hickory, N.C. on Saturday. (Photo/Chet Piotrowski)

In the waning seconds, Orris said: “I started choking up a little bit. We have been wanting this for so long and whenever the moment was finally there I could not believe it. It is barely sinking in right now. I got into the locker room and said, “Out of all the teams in this entire country, we are the last one standing right now. It is just unbelievable.”

Riggleman, a Casey-Westfield graduate, who played in 21 games said she was nervous in the final minutes. “I was just waiting for time to run out, but there kept on being timeouts,” she said. “I started shaking for a minute. I knew it was ours, but I didn’t want to celebrate as time had not run out. I was just very excited and thrilled and so happy for my team. It was awesome. Softball is very popular in Casey, and I played a different sport. To get this accomplishment has been amazing, especially representing Casey, such a small town, like most of the ones here.”

The team and coaches made their way through a tunnel of fans and into the gym where they signed posters and received congratulations from the many fans. 

Lake Land’s women’s basketball coach Dave Johnson addresses the crowd after the team arrived at the college after winning the NJCAA Women’s Div. II National Championship game in Hickory, N.C., on Saturday. (Photo/Chet Piotrowski)

Freshman Karrington Krabel, though, was in a wheelchair with a long leg brace on her leg, which she injured in the final quarter of the title game. Karrington will have an MRI today, but the emergency room doctors thought that she had a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus. This was a year after having surgery on her other knee for a torn meniscus.

“I got undercut and I just felt my whole knee snap,” said Krabel. “Winning the title means the world to me. I was just so proud of my team. I know I wasn’t out there, but I could tell their excitement that they had in them. I was really sad that I didn’t get to be in the huddle at the end, but seeing all of them excited and happy made my heart happy. I was especially happy for coach Johnson. We worked harder than ever and coach would push us and push us. Having my teammates come and celebrate with me meant a lot. We just got new shooting shirts and at the very bottom it said, ‘family’. It really shows how much of a family we are, always having each other’s backs on and off the court.”

Said Weis: “She (Krabel) had played some really big minutes. We knew we had to win it because she put her body on the line. We definitely had to finish it.”

Freshman Olivia Niemerg of Teutopolis said remaining calm when they were down five was one of the keys. “I thought composure was one of the strengths and if we got down a little bit, which we did, we could not freak out,” said Niemerg. “We had to keep calm and play our game.”

Niemerg had flashbacks of the 2018-19 season when the Wooden Shoes led the entire game before falling to Chicago Marshall 47-44 in Class 2A. “It was heartbreaking and I was hoping it would not happen again,” said Niemerg. 

The Orris family: The Orris family has a strong connection to Lake Land basketball. Josie was a sophomore on this year’s team, Josie’s mom played for Lake Land years ago and Josie’s sister is going to play basketball for the Lakers next season. (Photo/Pilar Barrio Sanchez)

Barry, on the fourth-place state team in 2018-19 for Tri-County Titans, was surprised by being named tourney MVP. “When they said my name, I literally cried,” she said. “I am so happy for my team. “

With Lake Land leading 49-46, Barry came up with a steal.

“The girls were just fumbling the ball and I was able to get it and toss it to Gant,” said Barry. Gant was then fouled and sank both free throws with 7 second left for a 51-46 advantage. 

Barry also made the final basket for the Lakers in the first half, a 3-pointer, for a 24-19 lead. Lake Land outscore Johnson County 23-4 in points off turnovers. 

“It (winning it) means a lot especially since this is my last time playing,” said Barry, who will attend EIU. “It is good to go out on a win, especially since last year was taken away from us suddenly. We really deserved the title and we worked hard for it.”

Newson scored the first six points of the second half for Lake Land. 

“I just took what was given honestly,” said Newson. “I feel like that got us off to a good start and gave us some momentum. Winning it was emotional. We were fighting back tears and we were all excited. I really can’t describe how I feel.”

Newson guarded Lajahda Boyland and held her to 3-for-11 (.273) shooting and just six points. She was shooting 46 percent on the season. 

“I was just staying low and preventing her from driving on us,” said Newson.

Gant made all eight of her free throws, including six in the final 4:24. 

“I wasn’t nervous because I had made the free throws before and I was confident I could make it and I am happy I could do that. I didn’t feel as much pressure, but I knew I had some pressure.”

Gant said she had never played for a winning program before. “This was definitely different and exciting,” she said.

Weis says she still has struggles believing the team won the national title. “Honestly, I am still processing it as it doesn’t seem real. It is hard to put into words. We are so used to small short-term goals and we completed the big long-term goal, and so what is next ? We don’t have anything left and that feels weird. I feel like we have one more thing to do. We did this for each other and for coach, and for that I’m unbelievably happy.”