, Muskogee, OK

Prep Sports

March 10, 2013

Winning in blue-collar fashion

OKLAHOMA CITY – They’re red and white, but their collars, even if you can’t tell visually are blue.

They’re gritty, lunch-pail gals, led by the guy in the hard hat, Jerry Walker.  

Together, they grinded their way to the table at midcourt late Saturday, picked up their second gold ball and took their salute from the throng of red-laced fandom saluting the 58-43 Class 4A championship win over Mount St. Mary at State Fair Arena.

“I’ve never wanted anything more than this,” said 6-foot sophomore CheyAnne Johnson, all smiles and tears with hands itching to get to that hardware.

Those blue-collar hands were soon all over it. Johnson’s hands gave her team their first lead with 6:22 to go in the third, but the Lady Rockets tugged once more, getting two from Kaely Bond with for a 27-26 edge that lasted one possession. Taylor London’s 3 with 5:12 on the clock made it 28-27, and Fort Gibson would never look back. A 20-8 third quarter made it 39-33 and the lead would peak at 57-40 on another London connect in the final minute.

“We keep telling them, they’ve got to be the toughest team physically and mentally,” Walker said. “We don’t have college coaches knocking at our doors. When we’re on our game, we’re outworking our opponent.”

Just sometimes, it’s taken a little dirt.

The team seemed at times during a 29-1 season to just get by. Out came the criticisms of a soft schedule, but the 2011 title team had heard that too. Yet there was a sense that all was not as it should be. Greasy hands couldn’t quite seem to get to the kink in the engine.

Before the game, his sixth championship game in eight seasons, Walker pinpointed the time when everything started humming.

“The Byng game,” he said, referring to the Area IV championship game loss that forced his team into the consolation path to state for the first time. “We got outworked. That was our wake-up call. We were reminded what we do when we’re successful.”

They did, however, need one more reminder – just a little one.

The first half looked a lot like last year’s title loss. FGHS shot 30 percent (6-of-20) after a 1-of-8 start. Against Anadarko in last year’s final, the Lady Tigers shot 28.3 percent.

“He told us the least important score in a game is the halftime score,” Johnson said. “The second half is what wins games. It didn’t matter what had happened to that point. Now was the time to play our best.”

That they did, going 4-of-6 out of the gate to start the third on what was a 10-2 run. For the half, they were 11-of-20 for 55 percent and finished at 42.5 percent.

“We focused on our offense much better,” said 5-10 senior Brooke Palmer, who had 15 of her 21 points after the break and finished with 13 rebounds. “We were more focused with our passes so we didn’t turn it over as much.”

Walker knew the defense that limited a career double-double performer in NSU commit Che’Ron Lewis to two points in the semifinal win over Cushing would have to do its thing too. Mount Saint Mary had three double-figure scorers in a semifinal upset of the top-ranked defending champs, led by Bond, who had 19 in the shocker. She had two points in this one.

Walker himself had to grit this one out. His wife Vicki had to leave after Friday’s semifinal and returned home where her father, Harvey Young, who has been battling cancer while in hospice at the Walker household, had taken a turn for the worse.

His team took their own turn, and amid the family’s sadness on one hand, he was able to smile on the other.

Especially when asked about the word “dynasty.” Two gold balls and 85 wins in three years begs for some label. No. 2 in the rankings has ended up on top again.

“You can say what you want,” Walker said. “I’m on your bandwagon now.”

There’s plenty of room for grimy gritty, blue-collar hands to grab on.

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