By Matt Turer (For OzarksSportsZone,com)
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — When these Strafford Indians look back on redefining perfection, they will remember how they answered perhaps their biggest challenge with perhaps their biggest effort.
They’ll remember taking a punch in the first quarter, and not hitting the mat. They’ll also remember responding and battling. Back-and-forth. Again and again against a team that’s prepared for the last two years to do nothing but beat them at state.
It was a game that saw the forever undefeated Indians without a lead for the first 15 minutes and 20 seconds. It was also a game that saw just three lead changes but also saw just a single point lead for Strafford halfway through the fourth quarter.
In the end, it was a game that saw Hayley Frank go for an inspired 34 points and 11 rebounds, saw key contributions in tense moments from Logan Jones, Maddison Chittenden and Kayley Frank, and saw the Strafford Indians win their fourth consecutive state championship with a 61-53 win over Lutheran North inside JQH Arena.
The win meant Strafford’s senior class exits with a 115-game winning streak that won’t be broken anytime soon, and the prevailing reason for that streak: family.
“They’ve been through it all,” Strafford head coach Steve Frank said, struggling through tears while standing in front of his entire roster after the game.
“I’ve got two daughters on this team, but this whole group…they’re all like my daughters. And that’s why we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to accomplish. Because it’s a family, and we’ve been through it all together. Hard times and fun times.”
Friday ended with fun times, but it wasn’t as easy as most of the 114 games that got them to the precipice of a fourth state title.
Lutheran North led 7-0 in the first quarter before Chittenden put Strafford on the board over three minutes into the game. That lead sustained throughout “overrated” chants from the Crusaders student section until late in the second quarter when Jones connected from three, putting the Indians ahead 23-20 and sending Strafford’s fans out of their nervous silence and into a deafening frenzy.
“They came out ready to go,” Frank said of the Crusaders. “They had our number and they wanted us really bad, but I thought we hung in really well. We never backed down and everyone had good energy and kept picking each other up the whole game.”
Strafford entered halftime up 27-24, but by late in the third quarter, Lutheran North was ahead 34-33 after a Jordyn White basket signaled a return to the Strafford-heavy arena’s nervous silence.
But 27 seconds later, Hayley Frank responded with a bucket with White guarding her that put the Indians ahead for good.
“It made it more fun,” Chittenden said. “It felt better. I’m glad it was a close game. It made it even more special.”
Strafford pushed its lead up to 41-36 early in the fourth quarter before the Crusaders brought it back to 43-42 with 5:10 to play. Then it was Kayley Frank’s turn.
Frank battled for back-to-back offensive rebounds before a hard-earned foul put her on the line where she calmly sunk two free throws with momentum balancing on every bounce.
The Indians scored 10 of the next 13 points to pull away.
“In the middle of the third quarter I felt like we were starting to pull away, and then I looked up and it’s still a three-point game,” Hayley Frank said. “But we battled, did well on the boards and stuck together.”
THE JOURNEY TO 115-0
The last blemish for Strafford’s senior class came four years ago as freshmen–a 55-53 loss to Marshfield. Since then, the Indians shattered the state win streak record of 102 and have won all four of their state titles.
For Mizzou-bound Hayley Frank, she remembers a single moment before it all began. A single moment told time and time again by her dad and coach.
“I’d hear the same story over and over about how he (Steve Frank) fell short playing for the state championship,” Hayley Frank said. “Now to do it four times is really an unreal feeling. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to do this with him.”
Strafford’s first state title was 50-46 over Saxony Lutheran. Their second was 83-37 over Whitfield. Their third: 77-36 over California. And their fourth came Friday night.
“It’s something most people never have any opportunity to do,” Frank said. “We’re just so, so blessed. This team all the way down the line has an impact whether it shows up on the stat sheet or not.”
Hayley Frank’s personal accomplishments came front-and-center in the fourth quarter. Sitting on 2,997 career points with Strafford up 50-45, Frank converted for a big late basket and a foul. The play gave Strafford a 53-45 lead, and gave Frank 3,000 career points.
Frank finishes her career at Strafford with 3,004 points,1,629 rebounds, 824 assists, 310 blocks and 296 steals. She finished with the state record in rebounds and is No. 5 all-time in assists. She also shot 54.52% from three-point range for her career, which is also a state record.
AN EFFORT 2 YEARS IN THE MAKING
For Lutheran North, Friday’s loss was particularly painful. After falling 80-47 in the 2016-17 state semifinals, the Crusaders built for two seasons with beating the Indians as an end goal.
Earlier this year, they came close in a 64-55 loss in St. Louis. Friday night, they came close again, but it still wasn’t enough.
“From the first time we saw them two years ago, I think we really got the first real look about how good they were,” Crusaders head coach Chris Forrest said. “For these two years, we’ve just been working our butts off to get better. And we just keep making strides. I think we had the schedule and the strategy. I’m just proud of my girls.”
SHS | 13 | 14 | 12 | 22 | — | 61 |
LNHS | 16 | 8 | 12 | 17 | — | 53 |
Strafford- Hayley Frank 34, Madison Chittenden 8, Logan Jones 6, Kyndall Compton 5, Emma Compton 4, Kayley Frank 4
Lutheran North- Madison Buford 14, Kaylynn Hayden 9, Taleah Dilworth 9, Jordyn White 8, Raevyn Ferguson 8, MaKayla Williams 3, Nevaeh Howard 2