The final victory at Valparaiso University wasn’t just for the group on the hardwood, but for every player and family that has passed through the halls of St. John’s Sauers Lutheran School.
Around 11:30 p.m. Sunday evening, a caravan of cars — led by police escort — rolled into the school’s parking lot.
Behind the flashing lights came a white van with the national champions, while families and fans drove behind, rhythmically pumping their horns with glee.
As the players filed out upon stoppage, with the large golden ball-shaped trophy in hand, a crowd of supporters let out a collective cheer.
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It was almost midnight, but that didn’t stop the celebration. It couldn’t wait.
Both current and former members of the Raiders’ eighth-grade girls basketball team climbed into a firetruck and took a lap around the fields in the dead of night with lights and sirens on full blast.
Then came the fireworks, illuminating the church and gymnasium in bursts of blue and white.
Everyone filed inside, out of the cold air and into Sauers’ gym for brief speeches by Principal Jonathan Baumgartel and head coach Craig Klinge.
The festivities continued until about 12:40 a.m.
Earlier Sunday afternoon, the Raiders defeated Immanuel Lutheran of Palatine, Illinois, 34-28 in overtime for the 2017 Lutheran Basketball Association of America’s National Championship.
It’s the second national title for the Raiders girls program, with the first title coming in 2001.
Indiana-based schools own 10 total champions among the boys and girls teams. Sauers’ girls and St. Paul Fort Wayne’s boys are the only teams with multiple championships.
“Most teams don’t even get to experience this once,” Raider Katherine Benter said. “It has happened twice for (Sauers) in school history. It means a lot.”
Sauers is a close-knit community, with 118 total kids from preschool to eighth grade in the school system.
There are just 33 kids, boys and girls, from sixth to eighth grade at Sauers, and nine filled the roster on the Raiders’ team at nationals.
“For this school, there’s a lot of pride,” Klinge said. “These kids dream and see other people have success. They’ve accomplished that. They’re living their dreams. I think they understand that there are younger kids there watching them who have similar dreams. They all understand that. It’s a big family here (at Sauers). It’s a tight-knit group who all support each other.”
The final game was close throughout, and adjustments proved crucial in the outcome.
“In that fourth quarter, we changed our defense up a little bit in an attempt to even up the score,” Klinge said. “The last possession, we said we just needed to attack. Unfortunately, the call didn’t go for us, and it put it into overtime.
“Once we got to overtime, I think we came back out and attacked,” he said. “We got a couple baskets and went back to a man-to-man defense. We wanted to not let them have easy shots. I think it was a matter of making the right adjustments at the right time. The kids read the adjustments, and they realized it was do or die at the end.”
When the outcome was decided, the eighth-graders let it all out in realization of what they accomplished.
“I cried,” Raider Sydney Jaynes said. “All of us eighth-graders and my mom (assistant coach Mary Ellen Jaynes) had a group hug. We sat there a couple minutes just realizing what we’ve done.”
The feat left some players without words.
“I’m speechless,” Raider Avery Koch said. “I know we won, but it doesn’t feel real. It feels like a dream.”
Koch and Jaynes both made the All-Tournament team for their efforts on the weekend..
In the semifinals, which also were Sunday, Sauers defeated the defending national champions, St. Michael Lutheran (Fort Myers, Florida), 40-35.
The Raiders bested Immanuel Lutheran (Lewiston, Minnesota) 33-18 in Saturday’s quarterfinals while also picking up a pair of wins over St. Peter Lutheran (Macomb, Michigan) 37-20 and Immanuel Lutheran (East Dundee, Illinois) 40-25 in opening play Friday.
Klinge said the attention to detail on defense made a difference in the tournament run.
“That team we played (from Palatine), we held them to 28, and they were averaging in the 40s for scoring,” Klinge said. “Every game we played, we gave up an average around the mid-20s. It was really all about our defense. That’s been our mindset all season long. I think we were best at limiting shots.”
The team will lose four eighth-graders, while four seventh-graders and one sixth-grader return to next year’s team.
Sauers finished their season 34-1 with two extra games added. They were 33-0 in originally scheduled contests.
Among other accolades, the Raiders also were Lutheran Invitational Tournament and Indiana Lutheran Schools Athletic Association state champions.
“These girls, what makes them special, is that they all had the same dream,” Klinge said. “They all believed in the program. I think when everyone believes in the same thing, everyone will be more successful. There’s no egos out there. Everyone believes in each other’s ability. I think we had a different leading scorer every game in the tournament. It wasn’t just one or two players every game.”
The 2017 St. John’s Sauers eighth grade girls basketball team that emerged as national champions.
Players: Avery Koch, Katelyn Schepman, Sydney Jaynes, Emma Schepman, Katherine Benter, Kate Connell, Ellen Zabor, Emma Klinge and Maggie Connell.
Coaches: Craig Klinge, Mary Ellen Jaynes, Greg Zabor.