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D3 FINALS: Pewamo-Westphalia holds on to beat Flint Hamady, winning program's first title after three runner-up finishes

D3 FINALS: Pewamo-Westphalia holds on to beat Flint Hamady, winning program's first title after three runner-up finishes
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Mar 23, 9:40pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Flint Hamady hit Pewamo-Westphalia with a flurry of body blows, but never landed the upper-cut, the knock-out blow.

To use the boxing analogy that Pewamo-Westphalia coach Steve Eklund dusted off before the Division 3 championship game, the Pirates knew they were going to have to take the best shots that Hamady could land.

They just didn’t know that there would be the gut punch of having to try to maintain a lead with both of their best players, Hannah Spitzley and Ellie Droste, on the bench in foul trouble.

On the ropes, reeling, with a double-digit lead down to just one in the final two minutes, the Pirates held on for a 40-33 win for the program’s first state championship, after runner-up finishes in 1983, 1984 and 2017.

“Wow. Before the game, our talk was the boxer’s mentality. You go in with a game-plan, you know what your strengths are. You’re not looking for the knock-out punch early. We just wanted to slowly build throughout the night. Gut punch, gut punch — we knew we’d have to take a couple of their shots. Have a tough chin. And then you’ve gotta stay to your plan,”  Eklund said. “They made a little run at us in the first half, and then they got a little desperate and threw the whole kitchen sink at us in the second half. And we persevered. It wasn’t pretty, but we out-pointed them.”

Saddled with four fouls each, Droste and Spitzley started the fourth quarter on the bench, with their team leading 29-24.

“I never imagined. You just don’t know. I think that’s why sometimes in practice, we’ve fouled Ellie out in practice purposely every once in a while, so we have to play without her. Same for Hannah. So we learn how to survive without them,” Eklund said. “Going into this game today, would I ever imagine that situation? No way. No way. Two smart kids who know how to keep themselves out of trouble, but a couple calls didn’t go their way today. But credit to everybody else who was on the court for picking up the slack.”

One of those was senior Rachel Huhn, who was left running the show. Her 3-pointer with 5:31 left made it an eight-point game, 32-24, giving the Pirates a little bit of breathing room.

“I just knew with those two sitting out, just because they’re two great players and two great scorers, I knew ‘OK, if I’m coming off this, I have to shoot.’” Huhn said. “I knew I was open, and I just told myself, ‘Knock it down.’ When it went in, I was pretty happy.”

Hamady answered with two quick Xeriya Tartt layups cut that lead down to just four, necessitating that Eklund bring in one of his two foul-plagued juniors.

Spitzley came in for just 18 seconds, before picking up her fifth foul.

“I fouled out once in my life. Freshman year,” she said. “I started crying. I don’t like sitting on the bench, the coaches know, my teammates know. But my teammates stepped up for me.”

“You’ve got the ultimate competitor sitting next to me. Every day in practice, never takes a play off, never takes a drill off. And to have to sit and watch the biggest game of your career? Nothing you can tell her. When she got in foul trouble, I just had to keep telling her ‘Stay in the moment. Stay in the moment. You can’t get caught up in those calls.’ She picked up that fourth and that fifth, she didn’t do nothin’, but it is what it is,” Eklund said. “Afterwards you just gotta support your teammates, and she was. She was probably the loudest cheerer on the bench, and that’s what we look for — if you can’t be out there making a play, pump up your teammates to make a play.”

Droste came back after that, and the Hawks tried to get her out just as quickly.

An isolation play resulted in a turnover, though, and then Droste avoided her own calamity, by sidestepping a potential charge after she took a steal coast-to-coast for a potential layup, drawing the blocking foul instead.

“Throughout the game, I was telling her ‘Control your speed.’ She was getting sped up a lot. So I thought that was one moment in the game where it slowed down for her. She saw what that girl was trying to do, so she hesitated a little bit and slid by. She made the play we were looking for her to make the whole game,” Eklund said. “I do know this: When she got to the 3-point line on the other side, I knew no one was catching her. She’s the fastest guard I’ve seen in the state this season.”

Hamady’s Aryana Naylor hit two free throws on the Spitzley foul, cutting the Pirates’ lead to just two, 32-30, with 3:43 to play. The Hawks (21-6) wouldn’t score again until eight seconds remained, as the Pirates nailed seven of eight free throws — three by Droste and four by Huhn — to pump the lead back up to eight, 39-31.

Droste’s last free throw came off a steal by Emily Nurenberg.

“If a ball’s in the air, at 5-foot-4, she’s probably not going to get it, but if a loose ball’s on the floor, my money’s on her. Throughout the game I kept saying ‘Girls, go get a ball.’ We kind of stood there, deer in the headlights on loose balls, and didn’t react. They were the faster-reacting team, but that was one of the moments I think in the fourth quarter, where we started playing and not over-thinking things. That was just reactionary play. And it’s a hungry kid. Those are game-winning plays right there, extra possessions,” Eklund said. “Defensively, we got stops. You probably heard me yelling from the sidelines ‘Just get stops.’ With 40 seconds left, I said ‘Girls, we need three or four more stops.’ And I think we got three stops in the final 40 seconds.”

The Hawks shot 43 percent in the second quarter, but were just 7 for 34 (21 percent) in the other three quarters combined.

“Down the stretch, I do feel we missed some makeable shots, some high-percentage shots,” Hamady coach Keith Smith said. “I told the girls to hold their heads up. I don’t have anything to complain about. Remarkable season. Only two teams were left playing today, and we were one of them. A lot of people didn’t think we could make it here, and we made it here. We went down fighting. We didn’t show up and quit, when we got down.”

Droste finished with 18 points, while Huhn had 10.

“It just feels amazing to go out this way, because everyone on this team, all 16 girls, have worked so hard at this in the offseason,” the senior said. “I just feel we work so well together, so to come close my sophomore and junior year, and put the cherry on top my senior year, that’s just a great feeling.”

Tartt had 15 to lead Hamady, which finished as runner-up for the third time, to go along with titles in 1983, 2009 and 2010.

The girls title gives Pewamo-Westphalia a Division 3 sweep, after the boys team won its first title last weekend.

“What a great year for our community. The last year’s been a great run,” Eklund said. “They grow up together, they go to class together — occasionally they go to prom together. They’re the biggest cheerers on the sideline, and we’re the biggest cheerers for them. There’s no animosity. We love each other. We love that program, and they love ours.”