Royalton’s season started with big expectations on the court, as the team brought back a talented group and won four of its first five games.
It has transformed into a measure of the team’s toughness and resiliency, facing a season-ending knee injury to one star player, and the biggest fight of all, a battle with leukemia by senior Lulu Martinez.
And that ability to overcome adversity was on display one more time by the Royals on their home court, Tuesday.
Royalton rallied back from a 24-19 deficit at the half to take down Maple Lake 51-44 in front of a standing room only “Orange Out” crowd for Martinez on senior night.
“I think this team has learned how to deal with adversity,” Royalton head coach Ron Makela said. “You can have plans and goals, but when an injury or illness happens, that changes things.
“We talk about growth and how it is painful sometimes,” he said. “We went through a stretch in January where it seemed like it wasn’t happening, but now I see how far they have come and continue to improve every day. And it is because of how they approach every day. They come to practice ready to work, to listen, to make this team better.”
With a depleted roster, Royalton’s focus shifted away from wins and losses and more to working together, on and off the court.
“They come back every day with the idea that we are going to get better each day,” Makela said. “After we found out about Lulu, we had a talk before one game about using/finding what one’s gifts are and using them to the best of their ability. I tell them that they each have something they contribute to this team and they need to put that to the best use they can.
“And they do,” he said. “This group gives me everything they can every day, and if you can say that and still end up on the losing end, I tell them to keep their heads up and that we will come back and work on it the next day. This positive attitude starts with the seniors and Haley (Olson). They have been great role models and teammates. They continually encourage and build up the underclassmen.”
Against Maple Lake, Royalton kept within striking distance in the first half despite extensive foul trouble, thanks in large part to sophomore guard Beth Cimenski scoring eight of her 10 points on the night.
Then, the Royals stormed out of the locker room in the second half with a 12-0 run, 10 of which were scored by senior Emily Fussy, who finished with 16.
Maple Lake would work back into the game and tie the score at 33-33 with 11 minutes to play, but the Royals regained control over the next seven minutes with baskets from senior Jacquline Nichols and sophomores Maddi Rudolph, Nicole Popp, Amy Hoover and Cimenski.
“Having that many different players score was huge for us,” Makela said. “They stepped up in a critical spot in the game.”
It was a much welcome win in a close game for Royalton, which had dropped its past six contests that had been decided by seven points or less, and a perfect way to conclude its home season.
“This is a tight group,” Makela said. “They rely on each other for support. Having an outlet like basketball allows them to take their minds off the realities of life for a time.”
Upsala wins two of three
Upsala won two of three games as it heads down the stretch of the regular season, defeating visiting Pillager 59-53, Feb. 20 and winning 75-44 at Onamia, Tuesday, while falling 81-61 at Browerville, Monday.
Upsala overcame a 29-23 halftime deficit to knock off Pillager, led by freshman Katlin Welinski with 17 points, junior Brooke Westrich with 13 points and five steals and junior Sara Herzog with nine points and five steals.
Upsala didn’t need any sort of rally versus Onamia, storming to a 41-21 halftime lead before cruising down the stretch.
Herzog (15), Welinski (14) and senior Kaelin Smieja (10) reached double figures for the Cardinals, followed by senior Katie Ripplinger and sophomore Kendra Lange with eight apiece and junior Mariah Prokott with six.
Westrich grabbed 11 rebounds, 10 on the offensive end, and Ripplinger picked up five assists.
Against Browerville, Westrich put up a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double to lead Upsala, with Smieja scoring 15 points and Herzog putting in 10.
Welinski added eight points and sophomore Kiley Smieja had six, with Ripplinger tallying four assists.
Bulldogs cap regular season
Swanville closed the regular season with two of the toughest teams on its schedule, falling 62-30 to visiting West Central Area, Monday and 65-28 to visiting Verndale, Tuesday.
Junior Steph Koetter had 11 points and eight rebounds, junior Danica Hanson scored six points and senior Nikki Primus recorded four points and eight rebounds versus West Central.
Hanson picked up 10 points and Koetter scored eight versus Verndale.
Section 5A schedule
Eighth-seeded Swanville will host ninth-seeded Onamia in the first round of the Sub-Section 5A South tournament, Monday, with the winner playing at top-seeded Isle in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
The winner of that game will play against the winner between fourth-seeded East Central and fifth-seeded Kimball Area in the sub-section semifinals.
Also in Thursday’s quarterfinals, second-seeded Upsala will host seventh-seeded Ogilvie, with the winner taking on the winner between sixth-seeded Royalton at third-seeded Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the sub-section semifinals.
The sub-section semifinals will take place in Pierz, Saturday, March 8.