They knew what was coming, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.
Anchorage Christian School’s Lady Lions were halfway through their regional championship game. They’d posted a 56-19 halftime lead on Nikiski, after throttling Homer 67-18 and Seward 74-17 in the tournament’s first two games.
The Lady Lions were an avalanche. They’d won 26 of 27 games already this season. They’d won 64 straight games inside the state of Alaska. They’d won three consecutive state championships, and they were amped and primed to make a charge for their fourth.
But it was Saturday, March 14, and the country was already in the process of locking down. Lady Lions head coach Chad Dyson had warned his team before every game: this one could be your last.
With the state tournament — and a fourth straight title — in sight, the players didn’t quite let themselves think pessimistically.
“We’d heard rumors that there might be a fan-less [championship],” says point guard and leading scorer Destiny Reimers, “but we weren’t thinking it was going to be cancelled.”
“They would never cancel it!” center Adara Powell recalls thinking. “No, never! All these people that worked so hard to prove their skills. You wouldn’t think they’d ever take that away from the kids.”
But shortly before halftime ended, assistant coach Steve Reimers called together three players: his daughter Destiny, Kelsey Smallwood, and Powell. All three were seniors. He delivered the brutal news: There would be no state tournament. No fourth championship. After tonight, no more games.
“This is your last game of your high school career,” he told them. “Make it count.”
Anchorage Christian sits on a triangular plot of land on the city’s east side. Cook Inlet is a couple miles to the west; the Chugach Mountains are visible to the east. It’s a small school — only about 100 students total in grades 9-12 — that, in the last half-decade, has become a girls’ basketball juggernaut.
Much of the credit for that goes to Chad Dyson, a 2008 graduate of the school who returned to coach the girl’s team in 2015. Dyson changed the entire philosophy of the program, and the results — combined with ACS’s ability to draw from all over the state — paid quick dividends.
He started small, bringing in players for practice from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. before school, mandating a year-round weightlifting program. He instituted philosophical changes across the board.
“My basketball philosophy is, I don’t teach plays, I teach concepts,” Dyson says. “I’m helping girls to understand spacing, ball movement, percentages and numbers of the game.” He instituted a crushing defensive framework — press, always press, every minute of every game — and he kept opposing offenses off-balance from the tip.
He recruited heavyweights as his assistant coaches. He had a geologist draw up heat maps for in-game shooting percentages to show where his players are hottest. He brought in a statistical specialist to track game-by-game stats. He recruited recent former college players, including his sister, to play against the Lady Lions in practice. By the time the playoffs would roll around, he knew exactly where his players were most comfortable shooting, he knew their tendencies, and he knew they were conditioned against college-level competition.
The work paid off. In Dyson’s first year, the Lady Lions went 22-8 and fell in the 3A regionals. In his second year: 28-3, state champions. Third year: 30-1, state champions again. Fourth year: 33-0, and yes, state champions again. This year: 27-1, their lone loss coming in a Las Vegas tournament.
“Every year, our goal is to win a state title,” Dyson says. “We constantly remind [players], ‘Victory favors the prepared, and we’re going to set you up for success.’ ”
ACS is so dominant in part because they’re one of the only elite-level private school athletic programs in the state. The Lady Lions finished the season on a run of wins that included scores of 71-22, 85-19, 79-17, 84-15, 83-10, 81-15 and 71-28. So they had reason to expect that a fourth state title was very much a strong possibility. They ramped up their practices, they cranked up their intensity, they began thinking not just in terms of victories, but triumphs.
“Make plays, not excuses,” the team’s 2019-20 t-shirts read. They did exactly that.
“You’re not training to beat these teams,” Dyson told the Lady Lions. “You’re training to be bigger than who you are.”
But the night before the Alaska 3A South Central regional tournament was set to tip off, Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. The NBA halted games immediately, and the ripple effects soon reached Alaska. District after district began shutting down their regional tournaments. The ASAA announced that the state tournament would be postponed, but not cancelled. Yet.
“I told the girls before the first game, ‘With everything that’s going on, treat every game like it’s your last,’” Dyson says. ASAA representatives kept an eye on the tournaments, declining to make a final shutdown order, but the end was always near.
Finally, ACS’s regional was the only one still standing. And by March 14, that meant the championship game between ACS and Nikiski was the only basketball game in the state of Alaska.
The Lady Lions used their typical combination of high-percentage shooting and suffocating defense to leap out to a 27-5 lead in the first quarter. They extended their lead another 15 points heading into halftime.
As the team walked back out to the court, Reimers’ phone buzzed. He looked down and saw what he feared: the state tournament was canceled. Not postponed, canceled.
“I wish I’d left the phone off,” Reimers said, “but at the same time, I’m glad I saw it, so that we could stop the game.”
Reimers pulled the seniors aside to give them the news, encouraging them to get out there and play the final minutes of their high school career with their heads held high. “What I didn’t realize was how emotional it would get,” he said. “Instead of going ‘hurray,’ they all sort of broke down. It was a good thing we were up by 30, 40 points, because they were not ready to go out and play.”
“I still had that hope in my mind, that maybe they’d pull through for us,” Powell said. “And then it was like, ‘Aw, man, no way.’ ”
The game wasn’t ever really in doubt. So with three minutes remaining, Dyson called timeout to allow his seniors, and those of Nikiski, one final curtain call.
“It was really nice, when they pulled us out. The whole gym cheered, even for the other team,” Powell said. “It’s so hard, being a senior and having the season end that way.”
In the locker room after the game, a tearful Dyson read the words that Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan told his team in similar circumstances.
“No one knows what it feels like to have a title shot taken away except someone who had a shot,” Dyson read. “In the same context no one knows what it’s like to watch a loved one suffer from a virus except one who is. In the end, we have to simply trust those who are making these decisions.”
The team offered up one last “Hoo-rah!”, and that was that. They went their separate ways one last time.
The first year they won the state championship, the Lady Lions were so nervous about drenching their head coaches that they didn’t even celebrate all that much. Two years ago, they popped bottles of apple cider and confetti. Last year, they attempted to ambush their coaches with Nerf guns, a plan that turned sideways when the coaches, tipped off, showed up with water guns. This year, the plan was water balloons … but they’ll have to wait.
A few days after the school closed its doors for the foreseeable future, Dyson penned an open letter to his team. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” he wrote. “The countless hours spent outside of practice truly becoming students of the game. Every time the alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. so that you could make it to 6:00 a.m. workouts, you put this family first and I’m honored to be your coach. You helped create a culture that will be around for years to come. If I could handpick my team, I’d pick every one of you, every time.”
Most of the players will be back next year. But the seniors won’t. “All the hard work, and the time in the gym that we spent through all of that, it all paid off,” Destiny Reimers said. “But I wish that wasn’t the last game I ever got to play in high school.”
Reimers, who was just named the Alaska Girls Basketball Player of the Year, will head to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to continue to play. Smallwood is headed to Green River College in Washington State, while Powell is still considering her options. All three leave Anchorage without a career-ending state championship, but with those proverbial life lessons.
“We know how good we were,” Smallwood says. “We know we would have gotten a championship.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.
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