Fallon players find redemption in state title win
LAS VEGAS — As the minutes turned into seconds in the fourth quarter, a group of teenagers led by a dedicated coaching staff were on the verge of something great.
As Lowry missed a basket during the final seconds and the buzzer sounded, the Fallon bench swarmed its teammates at center court, capping off a dominating season with the school’s first-ever NIAA-sanctioned state championship at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion on Saturday.
“All the hard work that we just put through this season, we all just felt like we did it. We made history,” said Caitlyn Welch. “We finally won. We ended the season with a ‘W’. It’s just exciting.”
Fallon and Lowry met for the fourth time this season after both dominated the south’s representatives in Friday’s state semifinal round. The Lady Wave blew out its rival in two of the previous three meetings, including a 50-15 thumping in the regional championship. Fallon came to play as it avenged last year’s regional title loss that preceded a loss in the state semifinal.
“There’s always pressure because we were playing Lowry for the fourth time. It’s hard to beat a team twice, let alone four times,” said Zoey Swisher, Fallon’s lone senior. “We were just feeling the pressure being in Vegas and in a new facility. There’s always pressure in any situation.”
But this year was different.
The Otuafi cousins — sophomores Leta and Leilani — gained more experience and maturity. Several players, including Faith Cornmesser, Caitlyn Welch, Chandler McAlexander and Kaitlyn Hunter, stepped up when Leta Otuafi was sidelined with an injury during league play. The team played with more cohesion and possessed several dangerous weapons on offense and defense.
“It definitely lit a fire under us saying that we are beatable and we need to play every single game,” Swisher added. “Every time we step on the court, we need to play our game. This was the best last game I could have ever asked for.”
Welch knew from the start that no team was going to deny Fallon from making history this season.
“There was no doubt at all,” she said. “We knew if we played our game and we worked hard that we would have come home as a champion.”
There was a new kind of buzz surrounding this year’s Fallon girls team. Fallon was determined to use last year’s two season-ending losses as motivation to come out stronger in 2017. As the clock read zeroes on the scoreboard, the hard work paid off and Fallon was crowned champions.
“They were kind of planning what they were going to do seconds before the buzzer went off,” Fallon coach Anne Smith said. “I heard Faith (Cornmesser) say we deserve this. We worked hard. Every team works hard. I don’t want to take that away from Lowry or anybody. It sure is good to see them finally get rewarded.”
And it was a special win for Smith, who helped the program end a drought of sanctioned championships as Fallon won many in the early 1900s.
“There are lots of people who helped along the way,” Smith said. “There’s Keith Lund and Kevin Lords. Here at the end, we took Chelle Dalager and Kevin Wickware. I’ve had many mentors from other towns. It’s nice but I certainly did not do it by myself. I had a lot of help.
“I don’t know everything. I certainly like to go to the people that I trust and talk and get their opinion. I use what I want and don’t use what I don’t want.”
It was especially gratifying to the team as the Lady Wave was able to send out its lone senior as a state champion.
“I’ve said all along she accepted her role. She knew she wasn’t going to be a huge offensive contributor but what she did for us defensively is unreal,” Smith said of Swisher. “She had a job to do. She didn’t care who it was or who we were going up against. She did it to the best of her ability.”
Swisher, jokingly, felt the pressure to get her state medal after her brother, Jack, hoisted his first-ever state title. The 152-pound wrestler won a state championship two weeks ago.
“He was giving me (a hard time). You’re not a state champion yet. I had to prove him wrong. It’s a happy household,” she said.