The Ferndale Wildcats girls basketball team reached small school nirvana this past Saturday evening as they defeated Rincon Valley Christian in the championship game of the North Coast Section's Division 6, doing so on their home court and in front of a standing-room only crowd. It was a journey years in the making after the North Coast Section saw fit to add a 6th division to the postseason just four years ago. Last season the Lady Cats reached the title game of the division only to run into a buzzsaw, on the road, in the title game versus Tomales. This time around No. 1 seeded Ferndale defended home court valiantly and pulled off a first-ever North Coast Section Championship for Ferndale High School in girls basketball.
The journey took the Cats through four rounds (three games) of the section's bracket and the title game would not have taken place in Ferndale if not for the team's exciting win over Contra Costa Christian in the semifinal round. That game was hampered by constant foul calls that affected both teams' ability to obtain and sustain momentum. It was Ferndale however that adjusted to frequent stops by the whistle and the Cats won the battle of the free throws and player loss to the fifth foul call.
Contra Costa Christian had the goods to upset No. 1 Ferndale but lost multiple starters in the second half due to the fifth foul call. After whittling down a Wildcat advantage, Contra Costa tied up the game, then even led by a point in the waning moments of the third quarter.
Natalie Detrick came up big, late in the game with multiple drives to the basket that resulted in points by herself and her teammates. Ferndale also won the free throw contest despite a low percentage, the Cats went 20/42 in the game while Contra Costa made 15 for 30 free throw attempts. The game also saw senior Sierra Earley at the top of her game as she dived for loose balls, played tough defense and came up with timely points. “I hit the floor all the time cause I'm just going 100 percent and want to make something happen for the team,” said Earley after the semifinal win. It would be ironic that in the opening quarter of the championship game, Earley would go down for the final time this season as she injured her knee. If the Lady Cats were going to win a title it would be with her encouragement from the bench, rather than her presence on the floor.
The championship game last Saturday evening pitted the No. 1 (Ferndale) and No. 2 (Rincon Valley Christian) seeds against each other, the best Division 6 could offer on the North Coast. It was a close game at the start as the two teams traded baskets and free throws to a 7-7 tie at the 2:31 mark of the opening quarter. Ferndale suddenly went cold and flat and three different Rincon Valley players scored to forge a 14-7 lead for the visitors by quarter's end. Both teams traded misses to start the second quarter when Ferndale's Meagan Early caught fire.
Just as she has done many times this season, Earley got hot and scored four straight field goals to give the lead back to the Wildcats 15-14 with 1:50 left to play in the first half. Natalie Detrick added a pair of free throws and Kendra Losa hit a mid-range jumper to push Ferndale to 19 points and Rincon Valley missed a chance to score late when two free throw attempts rimmed out, the Eagles failed to score a point the entire second quarter. Ferndale had weathered the storm that was Rincon Valley's run to end the 1st quarter and responded with even tougher defense to go with better ball movement and the Cats built a solid 19-14 lead going into half-time.
Ferndale stumbled a bit to open the second half and Mackenzie Burgess earned her third foul and had to sit a while. Maci Branstetter got a steal at the top of the key and went coast to coast for the fast break lay in at the other end. Kendra Losa also got her third foul however, Burgess returned to sink two free throws and a putback of a missed shot. Rincon Valley was also facing foul troubles and had to sit their point guard on a 3rd foul call. The game became a chess match and the Cats clung to a 25-21 lead after three quarters.
Meagan Earley took over again as the fourth quarter commenced and she hit a jumper, followed by a steal, a free throw and another steal. Earley delivered the ball to the low blocks and Mackenzie Burgess rebounded her missed first attempt and put it back in, off-glass to give the Cats a commanding 30-21 lead in the low scoring contest. Just when it appeared that Ferndale was in control Rincon Valley playmaker Sophia Gaorian led a comeback as she made four straight free throws, followed by two field goals. Ferndale's Maci Branstetter and Meagan Earley hit shot to answer the run by suddenly Rincon Valley was back to within 4 points with three-and-a-half minutes to go.
The Lady Cats responded with four straight free throws by Burgess and Detrick, while Rincon Valley had a turnover, then two possessions ended with missed shots and a traveling call. Two more free throws by Earley game the Cats a ten point lead again and Maci Branstetter had two more steals in the final two minutes. Rincon Valley had lost both of their floor leaders to fouling out in the fourth quarter and the Wildcats killed the final seconds to win 43-32. Once again, the Cats won the battle of the free throws hitting 13-18 in the game, including 8/12 in the final quarter.
Meagan Earley topped all with her 17 points and 6 steals, Mackenzie Burgess chipped in 11 points and critical rebounding and Maci Branstetter had 4 steals. As it was with the Cats all season it was truly a team effort and great defense that won it for Ferndale. So what was it, awesome offense or great defense that won the title? “It was our defense, we closed down the passing lanes and they weren't able to get things going and do what they wanted,” said victorious Ferndale head coach Kristy Christiansen. The Cats exemplified the team game and everyone had roles to play whether it was putting up points or making the defensive stops at the other end of the court.
”I don't score a lot of points, but I get the ball to my teammates to help them score,” said senior point guard Natalie Detrick, “towards the end of the season we had to play with heart and we were able to pull off these big wins.” After winning three straight in the North Coast Section postseason and winning their first-ever girls basketball division title, the wins just don't get any bigger or better than that!
Hard charging senior Sierra Earley takes the ball to the hoop for the Lady Cats offense in the NCS basketball playoffs on Feb. 29. Earley was playing her best ball of the season during Ferndale's post season run until she went down with a knee injury in the championship game. The Wildcats carried on with Earley cheering from the bench and went on to win over Rincon Valley Christian, claiming the NCS Division 6 Championship. As the local high school's move on to the spring sports season, Earley hopes to re-hab in time to join the Lady Cats on the softball field.