“If you’re going through hell, keep going!”
This iconic phrase has oft been misattributed to the venerable British prime minister, Wintson Churchill. But while the phrase has far more obscured origins, it is reasonable to glean why it maintains such close ties with the wartime statesman.
In the throws of a savage war, Britain found itself on the ropes at home and abroad with little hope as bombs fell on London and empty stomachs as rations were diverted to the war effort. On the heels of the German blitz, Churchill delivered his iconic “Never Give Up” speech at Harrow School on October 29, 1941: Never give in, never give in, never never, never–in nothing, great or small, larger or petty–never give in…”
He became a cultural figure representing stoic steadfastness and British resilience in the face of devastating opposition and thus, some legends become large enough to generate cultural gravitational pull so great that things, never uttered by them, are attributed through reputation, alone.
Rockford girls basketball does not have the global cultural impact of Winston Churchill and a basketball game is not world war, but the spirit of resilience and perseverance in that quote carries itself across all avenues of life, far beyond matters of historical scale.
Exactly one year ago, the Rockford Rams met the West Bloomfield Lakers in the state semifinals at Michigan State’s Breslin Center on March 18, 2022. The Lakers went on to win that game 66-63 and eventually beat Hartland 51-42 to win the state title. That semifinal matchup a year earlier could not have been a more distant cry, however, from what would take place March 18, 2023.
Rockford senior, Kayla MacLaren, said getting back to Breslin has been the goal since they left last year:
“I think the whole team agreed it was our goal to make it back there this season after doing it my junior year. We even made our team motto ‘finish’ because it was our goal and our main focus to finish what the ‘21-‘22 team started.”
And if that goal wasn’t focused enough, she explains that the Rams had their eye on one particular matchup they had a chance at on the other side of the bracket after winning in the semifinals.
“After quarterfinals, when we found out there was a potential for the championship game to be against West Bloomfield, that game was all we wanted. Obviously, we had to focus on beating a very good Renaissance team, but West Bloomfield was our number one goal. Once we got to the championship game we knew it was going to be a war with all of the skill Bloomfield has, but everyone on the team was willing to give it everything they had so we could finally finish what we started last year.”
And the Rams had started red hot in the 2022 encounter and led 31-26 at halftime. A year later, neither team could seem to hit shots, but the Rams managed to hold a slim and somewhat sloppy 14-12 lead at the break with the Wypych sisters being responsible for all fourteen. Early on, it looked even more bleak and seemed as if the Rams had little hope of stopping the Lakers, as they opened up in a zone defense and fell behind after the first quarter 10-4; a six point differential that was the largest for either team on Saturday and seemed closer to 20 in terms of how things felt in the arena.
West Bloomfield whipped the ball around and found open looks that carved the zone and got the ball deep into the defense for several high percentage shots around the basket in the opening quarter. Rockford knew they had to adjust and the coaching staff came out of a timeout in man-to-man. That decision began to take immediate effect and the Rams began giving the Lakers fits with their disciplined defense that cut down on dribble penetration and stifled passing lanes with robust help side defense.
Rockford junior guard, Grace Lyons, remarked on that pivotal in-game adjustment:
“Our coaching staff works so incredibly hard for us all season long. They spend countless hours studying film, getting our scouting reports ready, breaking down the opponent’s plays, deciding our match ups, and none of this would have been possible without each and every one of them. So going into the game we had our game plan which was to start in zone and see how they react to it, but we knew eventually we would have to win the game by playing solid man-to-man. The zone just wasn’t working out for us just because they have too many talented players who can pass from all over the floor…”
Lyons also explained how experience from a year ago played a key role in facing the vaunted Laker attack.
“Our game plan on man defense was to not face guarding anyone, because last year when we did that it gave open driving lanes to their other players. So this year we decided everyone needs to be in help or in a gap when your player has the ball to stop dribble penetration, and just make it tough for them to go anywhere. We were able to make that adjustment on the fly because it’s what we’ve been doing all season. We play some zone, but we rely on and are known for our solid man-to-man.”
While the scoring may have been polar opposite to last year’s bout, the competitive balance between the two teams was once again on full display. The Rams, once again, tussled back and forth with constant lead changes that never saw the game get out of reach for either team. It seemed as though the game would come down to whoever had the ball last and whether or not either team could see a couple shots go through the net and get hot at just the right time.
West Bloomfield began to take control and figure out some alleys for attack against the Rockford man defense and eventually pulled ahead. The Lakers would extend the lead to 3. Rams answer. 2. Rams answer. 3. Rams answer. Each time West Bloomfield looked to have the upper hand, the Rams would find a way to attack the rim for a bucket, free throws or kick to the outside. One big three came off the fingertips of senior Alyssa Wypych, that dropped a bucket that kept things within a score down the stretch. Sophomore sister, Anna Wypych, relentlessly attacked the rim and put down shots in critical minutes. Freshman Sienna Wolfe got to the line and hit shots with poise often unseen at any age on this sort of stage. MacLaren and a host of other Rams broke the Laker press and secured the ball under immense pressure to keep Rockford in striking distance. Despite all that, the Lakers maintained the advantage towards a 36-33 lead with just 2:10 left.
Wolfe took advantage of an opportunity to get to the rim and draw the foul with 1:45 left in the game and knocked down both shots to pull the Rams back within one and the score set at 36-35.
Lyons expressed how the Rams never stopped believing down the stretch:
“We all just knew we were not giving up no matter what. We’ve worked way too hard all season to just fold because some things weren’t going our way. We made an adjustment as a team. If your shot is not falling, just drive and get to the line. Work your way back in it that way. I know I at least told Sienna (Wolfe) ‘Keep being aggressive they are going to fall eventually, keep taking it to them.'”
While Lyons may have had an uncharacteristically quiet afternoon on offense, she made quite a statement when the moment mattered most:
“For me personally, I know I’m not going to stop shooting just because I had missed a few. I know I’m a good shooter and I know my coaches and teammates have confidence in me. So, when Alyssa drove in, kicked it to Anna, and Anna swung it to me, nobody was around me, so I knew I was going to let it fly.”
The shot fell through the cylinder like Ram fans have seen so many times before and Rockford took a slim but commanding lead.
West Bloomfield had one more chance to tie at the line, but a missed front end forced an attempted intentional miss, which failed to hit the rim and turned the ball over. Rockford inbounded and got the ball to Lyons who was fouled and sank two free throws to seal the deal with .1 seconds remaining. The final score ended 40-36 with the Rams as Division 1 state champions.
Banners hang in gyms all over Michigan citing conference titles, district championships and beyond, but while those numbers signify the completion of great accomplishments, they are earned long before and the same is true for Lyons.
“It’s just an amazing feeling, I’ve been working for this my whole life, putting in so much time in the gym with my dad, and it finally paid off. It’s funny because my dad would always make up these scenarios when we were practicing free throws, ‘ok, you’re down one in the state finals, no time left, if you make both you win.’ And to some extent that really happened. It is just an unexplainable feeling of just pure joy and I don’t think my dad has stopped smiling.“
Anna Wypych echoed much of the same, “I literally don’t have words to describe how amazing this feels. We’ve been working so hard all year and it paid off.” Alyssa Wypych could not have been more excited, “It’s an indescribable feeling…I went lightheaded. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh…this is happening and it’s something that I’ve worked my whole life for. It’s been a dream since forever.”
The Rams held West Bloomfield junior and Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year, Indya Davis, to just 8 points. Indya’s sister Summer was held to only 4 made free throws and 0-11 shooting from the field.
Rockford coach, Brad Wilson, had this to say following the incredible championship finish:
“They gave us everything they had and we have a ton of respect for them. They made a couple of runs today where some teams would have folded. Our girls didn’t flinch, they steadied the storm, and when our girls had opportunities to make plays, they did.”
Lyons returns next year with a host of Rams, but losing some key pieces to Rockford’s success over the last few years:
“It was just so great to be able to accomplish this with this group of seniors. They are incredible girls and we all had the same goal in mind all year long. We got it done. We hope to be back at the Breslin next year and we will set just as high of expectations for next season!”
For her part, MacLaren has a lot to be proud of in her career at Rockford:
“As a Ram I hope to have brought pride back to our school and our program. When I was a freshman, our program hadn’t won a district championship in 10 years and now for us to have won the state title only 4 years later, I think is pretty amazing. All six of us seniors have been playing basketball together since sixth grade, so the legacy that we would hope to leave is that it is so important to stick together and grow together. The determination and grit that the seniors brought to the team, especially after losing in the final four last year, was incredible. We brought energy and love to the team and we hope the team next year is able to have the same or even improve and make it a norm in our program to play with lots of love and passion.”
Anna Wypych finished with 20 points (including 9 of 10 from the free throw line) and 8 rebounds. Alyssa Wypych finished with 9 points and Sienna Wolfe closed out her freshman year with six. The Rams finished the season 28-1 and tied for the state record for wins in a season. Their lone loss came in a close 61-54 defeat against Division 2 semi-finalist West Catholic before the new year at the Cornerstone University Holiday Tournament.