While some had seen the struggles of last season and beyond, the program also added several new transfer players and incoming freshmen this season, as well as a new head coach in Neal, an Evergreen High alumnus who, as a player, was part of the Plainsmen boys team’s 1994 league title run that ended a 45-year absence.
When the year started, Neal saw a team low on morale from previous losing seasons. He knew he and his fellow coaches had their work cut out for them.
“When I showed up at school the first day, 70 percent of the girls looked me dead in my eye and told me they sucked and that they weren’t any good,” Neal said. “To be able to come in here and not just change the winning and the losing, but to be able to change the mindset, to be able to help the girls believe in themselves, to understand what they’re capable of beyond basketball through the game, that’s been the really special part.”
How the team built their confidence was an inch-by-inch, day-by-day effort.
“We did have some obstacles throughout the season as a team, but now we overcame those and we really became a family,” Wright said. “Honestly, (we’re) just stronger together now.”
Evergreen started the season winning three of their first four, including league wins against the very teams they lost to last season.
Since the last week of December, the Plainsmen have won 10 of their last 12 games, and they’ve consistently pulled out the close ones.
Two weeks ago, it was an overtime win against Heritage.
On Wednesday, Evergreen (14-5, 6-1) trailed by 41-31 less than two minutes into the fourth quarter against a Prairie team (10-9, 6-2) that also had its sights set on a 3A GSHL title.
The Falcons lost senior point guard Maddie Clouse to a non-contact lower leg injury near the end of the second quarter, yet still managed to regroup in the third thanks to the sharpshooting of Emma Smith, who scored nine points in the quarter.
Prairie extended its lead to start the fourth with an Claire Smith reverse layup and two made free throws from August Kissinger, but the lead was short-lived.
Lindsey started Evergreen’s run with a 3-pointer, before Kimora Ross scored five straight to get the Plainsmen within two points.
“When we know we’re down, we’re getting our conversations, we’re figuring it out, we’re getting back on the court and we’re trying to figure it out and dominate,” Lindsey said.
Wright hit a go-ahead jumper for Evergreen at the 2:06 mark, before Prairie reclaimed the lead one minute later on an Emma Smith bucket.
Ross, who finished with a game-high 20 points, drilled a basket with 42 seconds left that proved to be the differnce. Then, after Ross made a pair of free throws to go up by three, Prairie missed on its final possession. The final seconds were merely a formality before the Plainsmen jumped into each other’s arms and climbed the ladder, one by one, to cut down the net.
“They did that,” Neal said, admittedly at a loss for words. “They did that.”
And they aren’t done yet. The Plainsmen’s win locks up the No. 1 seed out of the league for the 3A bi-district tournament and another home game on Feb. 10.
“Look out for us,” Lindsey said.
EVERGREEN 51, PRAIRIE 47
PRAIRIE — Claire Smith 12, Emma Smith 11, August Kissinger 8, Halle Lovejoy 0, Natalie Coughran 0, Maddie Clouse 3, Joely Renk 12. Totals 18 (5) 6-10 47.
EVERGREEN — Lavalerie Lindsey 6, Modesta Rivera 2, Naomi Dain 0, Kimora Ross 20, Shayla Tran 0, Christina Nguyen 4, Aiyanah Sefronio-Byrd 9, Adrian Wright 10, Rylee Martin-Farr 0. Totals 18 (5) 5-12 00.
Prairie 19 5 13 10—47
Evergreen 7 16 8 19—51
JV — Prairie won