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Seniors fortunate for shot

SACRAMENTO – Winning at the highest level sometimes has a funny way of changing things.

In the beginning, everything is new, exciting and thrilling, but eventually, as the wins continue to pile up, so do the expectations. And along with those soaring expectations come pressure.

Just ask the Forest Lake Christian girls basketball team.



The Falcons played in their first Division V Sac-Joaquin Section Championship game in 2001, losing to Ripon Christian. Two seasons later, Forest Lake Christian enjoyed its first section championship. And the next year, 2004, the Falcons won the California State Championship.

Last season, Forest Lake Christian won its third-straight section championship, but was stunned by Pinewood 60-40 in the Northern California Championship game – just one step away from a return trip to the state championship game.




But this season, for the first time in their high school careers, Forest Lake Christian seniors Taylor Kilgore and Brittany Allen left ARCO Arena without a Division V Sac-Joaquin Section Championship banner in their arms.

After the game, those same two players were left fielding questions like: “How does it feel not to win a section championship?” or “What has happened to the team the past few years?”

Both teenagers were patient and thoughtful with their answers, but at some point I wondered if they were dying to shout out, “Why don’t you ask me about how special it feels to even get the chance to play for four straight section championships or how proud I am of how well my team performed when most people didn’t think we’d even make it past the semifinals?”

After hearing about the Falcons’ 56-49 loss to Modesto Christian, many people across the section will think to themselves how Forest Lake Christian dropped the ball this season in failing to secure another title. What a disappointment they’ll think.

But I see it completely differently.

The Falcons this season were a very different team than they had been in previous years. And in high school athletics, to be able to continually jump over a bar shoved so high in the air that planes are flying past is almost an impossible dream.

As Allen and I were talking after the game, she calmly told me, “There’s never going to be one team at the top of the mountain forever.”

She’s absolutely right. And just because her team didn’t make it exactly to the top of the mountain this season, she and Kilgore said repeatedly how happy they were just to have the chance to climb that mountain – something very few high school teams ever have the chance to do.

This year’s team was not the loaded team it was in 2004, with every starter having a legitimate chance at being an all-state or Division I college caliber player. Instead, the roster was filled with underclassmen and players seeing extensive varsity minutes really for the first time in their careers.

Allen, the team’s point guard for the past three seasons, came off the bench the entire season. Fighting through a series of frustrating hamstring injuries, she was never able to get herself in true game shape, leaving Kilgore as the only tried and true crunch-time player.

After losing Jan. 6 to Woodland Christian, the Falcons suffered their first Central Valley Christian League loss in more than three and half years. By season’s end, the team would lose once more to Woodland and twice to Sacramento Waldorf.

“Trying to keep a team running at such a high level is like running an engine,” Forest Lake Christian coach Steve Kellar said. “Sometimes it will stress the engine and cause breakdowns and freezes. And, realistically, the talent base is not nearly as strong this year as in past years.

“But that’s not to take away the fact that this team is talented in its own way.”

Unlike previous years, wins were no longer in the bag by simply stepping on to the court. Instead of building 30-point leads after eight minutes, the Falcons had to pull together, rely on each other and claw their way through the season.

So when the Falcons faced Sacramento Waldorf in the section semifinals, many expected a third loss. Instead the Falcons gutted out a 78-73 overtime win to advance.

And something funny happened – the Falcons truly celebrated.

“We were definitely proud this year,” Allen said. “In past years, we never really even celebrated making it to or winning section championships because our real goal was to win state. This year, we really appreciate everything more.”

Winning a section title this season was never a given, but the pressure to do so was.

But Kilgore repeatedly reminded me after the game that while the loss hurt, the season isn’t over yet. Her Falcons will still play in the Northern California playoffs Tuesday night.

No one is guaranteeing another state championship, but if one did come calling you’d better believe the Falcons will be celebrating like they never have before.

And rightly so.

ooo

Sports writer Stacy Hicklin’s column usually appears on Wednesdays. To contact her, e-mail stacyh@theunion.com or call 477-4244.


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