NAMPA — One thing needs to be said right away. The story of Grace’s 46-37 state-title win over Prairie on Friday, as has been the case all tournament, was Maniah Clegg.
In the final virtuoso act of her stellar state tournament run — and high school career — Clegg scored 16 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked four shots, keeping the Grizzlies alive in the first half before an overwhelming late run wiped out Prairie to bring Grace its first girls basketball state title since 1986.
“It’s just surreal,” Grace coach Kyle Christensen said. “I still don’t even realize that we finally got it done. This team has been resilient all year long. We’ve fought back from adversity multiple times, we’ve had a lot of close games, and the girls bought into it, they still believed. We knew Prairie was going to make runs, and the girls just kept believing and never backed down.”
Over three games in the 1A DI state tournament — a gauntlet that included matchups against Liberty Charter’s 6-foot-3 star Madison Hodnett, defending state champion Lapwai, and Prairie, which knocked the Grizzlies out in the state semifinals last year — Clegg put up 56 points and 45 rebounds, averages of 18.7 points and 15 rebounds a game.
Before the state tournament, Christensen had his players listen to a preview podcast that anointed Liberty Charter — the Grizzlies’ first-round opponent — as a dark-horse title contender in 1A DI. Just before Grace tipped off play on Wednesday, word came in that Clegg hadn’t been selected to play in a state-wide all-star game for seniors that will take place in late March.
Christensen thinks the snubs lit a fire under his whole team, and particularly his star post player. Beyond the obvious difficulty in putting up 19 and 15 for three straight games against anyone, the final two teams she helped Grace beat, Lapwai and Prairie, have combined to win eight of the 12 championships in 1A DI since 1A split into two divisions in 2009.
“It feels really good to show them who we are, to represent Grace, to put our names up there,” Clegg said. “We talked about it in the locker room. We deserve to be here, we’ve worked hard and it’s been a really long time. We’re this close, don’t settle.”
It wasn’t just Clegg. The Grizzlies have precocious freshmen — Melodie Straatman (10 points) and Sydnee Smith (7) scored all of their combined 17 points in the second half Friday to supercharge Grace’s 21-4 run to close the game.
But they’re still, well, freshmen, which adds even more responsibilities for Clegg. Forget scoring and rebounding. When teammates are in trouble, she has to be the calming factor, always available to catch the ball out of a trap or dribble it upcourt herself. When shots aren’t falling, she has to stay positive and encouraging — and she can’t ever switch that off.
On Friday, she never did, playing all 32 minutes.
“She’s a generational player for us,” Christensen said. “She’s one that I’ve known since she was little was going to be a big-time player for us. ... Having her as a senior, I know the freshmen kind of use her as a security blanket, follow her lead and that helped us a lot.”
But seeing her and the rest of Grace’s senior class — Nayvie Anderson, Makenna Straatman and Brooklyn Rigby — triumph on Friday came with pain for Christensen, too. He knew, better than anybody, that there should have been one more player in the class, that four seniors should have been five.
Christensen’s daughter Allie would have been the same age as Clegg and the Grizzlies’ other seniors. In a small town like Grace, where everybody knows everybody, they would have grown up together, gone to school together, played together.
Allie Christensen died in a playground accident in 2006, when she was just 3 years old.
Even in the championship euphoria, even with all the time that had passed, Kyle Christensen couldn’t escape the thoughts. She would have been on this team, would have been a senior.
“It’s the worst thing that could happen in anybody’s life, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” Kyle Christensen said. “My wife’s had a really hard time knowing that she would have been on this team. But these seniors, whether Allie’s here or not, they feel like she’s been here all along.”
The Grace players, led by the seniors, wore stickers on their shoes and ribbons in their hair all season in Allie’s memory.
“Every year, we do something to honor her,” said Clegg, who also had a younger sister die just before she turned 3. “It’s kind of bittersweet for me for me as well, to be able to attribute that to people who have gone before.”
“Late in that Lapwai game, I felt that she was there,” Kyle Christensen said, choking up. “And tonight, kind of the same way. Late, maybe a minute left, it was kind of like, dad, we got it. It was an awesome experience.”