ROBESONIA>> The smiles are back. Finally. Had not been seen in a while.
On Dec. 6, 2014, Daniel Boone beat Southwestern (Md.) High School by four points.
That was the last time the Blazers knew what it felt like to win a basketball game. Until Saturday night.
In between were 34 games of anguish and frustration and doubt — 20 straight to close out last season and the first 14 games of this season.
That was all erased Saturday in Robesonia when junior guard Ryan Okuniewski nailed a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left to re-take the lead, then Blazers hung on to beat host Conrad Weiser 41-39 to win the Frontiersman Classic.
After a steal at other end sealed the verdict, Boone’s bench rushed the court, jumping up and down as the final buzzer sounded.
“When I let it go I just knew it was going in,” Okuniewski said of what turned out to be his game-winning 3-ball with the Blazers down 39-38. “I almost thought the game was over at that point. Then I realized we had to play one more possession.
“(Teammate) Ian Rathgeb found me open. And even though I was cold tonight, he still had faith in me.”
And that’s what it’s all about, in the end. Faith. Sticking together.
A 34-game slide would rip apart many teams. Through it all, the Blazers buckled at times but they never broke. Okuniewski didn’t pretend that there weren’t tough moments this season and last — to deny such would be folly. But the remarkable thing about the Blazers is the team never came apart at the seams.
“We’re like a family,” Okuniewski said. “When I think of this team I think of a family. Half the teams in this county, I don’t think, could handle a (34-) game losing streak and stay together. No one quit, everyone kept their heads up each and every game thinking we could get a win. So the hardest part was to keep everyone on focus, on task, with the thought that we were gonna get one.
When tensions would approach a boiling point during the losing streak, the Blazers would nip it in the bud by calling team meetings. That would help simmer down the frustrations.
“There were times when everyone was getting on each other, but we always made sure to have team meetings that night or the next after practice,” Okuniewski said. “We took an hour and a half off practice to make sure we were still together. We just sat in the locker room and talked. We didn’t want to get to a place where if someone made a bad pass, we would confront each other. We wanted to be young men about it.”
For head coach Ian Gendreau, Saturday’s win — and with it, the end of the streak — meant he got to see his boys finally get rewarded for working hard and sticking together.
“They hadn’t been rewarded since the first week of December of (2014),” Gendreau said. “So you go into a game and it’s never there. Going into a locker room and seeing the guys jump around this tonight, that’s never there because they’ve never won. So you work hard with them at practice and you see how hard they’re working and you just want to give them that and let them experience that (winning). The hardest part (during the streak) was to see kids work their butts off and get absolutely nothing for it.”
“For me, it’s all about the kids. I love seeing the kids get rewarded for hard work.”
There was no real inkling that the streak was going to end Saturday night at Weiser. The Blazers’ closest loss during their 0-14 start was opening night, a 61-50 loss at Muhlenberg. Most of the setbacks since had clipped 20 points in margin.
“We did a better job communicating on defense and getting out on the shooter,” Gendreau said. “We made them take a lot of contested shots. We had moments we relied on the three, and we tend to do that. But we made a point to get the ball inside, and we did a nice job of setting other guys up. … Getting to the hoop a little more definitely helped do it for us.”
Gendreau had seen positive signs. He had seen the Blazers win a half here, win a half there, where as recently as 10 days ago that could not be said. Baby steps.
Winning eviscerated the major mental stumbling block for Gendreau and the Blazers as they come down the stretch and prepare for next season. Its value could not be underestimated in the coach’s eyes.
“It’s huge,” he said. ” We have one senior on the roster, so we know we’re playing for next year. … We’re bringing back eight or nine seniors for next year and so we don’t want to have to learn these lessons next year. We want to compete and win some games so we can build on that going into the summer. We got it out of the way. We were just praying we wouldn’t take this streak into the (juniors’ ) senior year and have to live with it all summer.
“I can’t tell you how good this feels. It feels fantastic.”