WELLMAN — The Lynnville-Sully Hawks had big dreams for how this season might end. Their expectations were justified. After all, they cruised to an astounding 18-3 regular season, during which they bowled over a majority of their competition. Coming into the district final, their confidence must have been at an all-time high. Despite frequent slow starts, they had dominated each of their tournament games en route to a clash with 21-2 Iowa Mennonite School.
However, those dreams and expectations were ultimately wiped away by IMS in the district final 58-53 on Friday. It was yet another slow start for the Hawks, but this time it was too deep of a hole to climb out of.
“We missed a few easy shots early on, but we kept playing and that’s all I can ask for. As you go down the tournament trail, the teams get a little bit better,” Hawks’ coach Nick Harthoorn said. “We got down early again and IMS is a really good team. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They made us earn everything we got. It just wasn’t quite enough tonight.”
IMS came out with a ton of energy on both ends of the floor. They flew to the ball with a suffocating pressure that gave the Hawks immense trouble coming out of the gate. The Hawks had a layup blocked on their first possession that led to a break-away layup for IMS senior Peyton Thompson.
That was much of the story for the first quarter. Following more quick scores in transition, Harthoorn called a timeout just three minutes into the game and changed up his lineup. He inserted the team’s sixth man, freshman Connor Cullen, into the game to give IMS a different set of skills to deal with in the press.
-It seemed like each time the Hawks began to generate anything on the offensive end, IMS answered right away. Hawks senior Brady Van Wyk tipped in a bucket to make it 11-4, only to have Thompson respond quickly. Junior TJ Cunningham nailed a 3-pointer to pull the Hawks within eight at 15-7 with two minutes left in the first, but a strong backdoor cut followed by a silky pass gave IMS an easy bucket shortly before the buzzer sounded, making it 17-7 after one.
L-S came out with a renewed sense of urgency on the defensive end, but they still struggled to generate offense. IMS took almost a full minute on their first possession of the quarter, but ultimately hit a good shot. However, the Hawks controlled the flow of the quarter. The trouble on offense for the Hawks stemmed from Cunningham, one of their primary ball-handlers, getting into foul trouble early in the second. He was forced to come out after picking up his third foul with two minutes to go.
Cullen nailed a three late in the quarter to bring the Hawks back within eight at 24-16, but another backdoor cut led to an easy IMS bucket, making it 26-16 at half.
Cunningham came out to lead the charge for the Hawks right out of halftime. He hit a pullup jumper right away to remind IMS that he was back in the game and meant business. That was answered by IMS senior Cameron Gingerich’s jumper. Cunningham then drove to the hoop and finished with a right-hand layup, but once again Gingerich answered. After trading buckets steadily, Harthoorn called a timeout with three minutes to go in the third. Down 10 points, it was clear that if the Hawks didn’t make a charge soon, it would be over.
Coming out of the timeout, junior Darin Hofer nailed a three for the Hawks. Cullen then swiped the ball, dribbled down and nailed another three to bring the game to its closest margin since the first quarter at 32-28. Cullen missed a three, but Van Wyk picked up the board and finished to pull the Hawks within two. Gingerich followed with a layup for IMS, then forced a turnover on the other end. Thompson nailed a three as time expired, and it was 37-30 going into the fourth.
After trading buckets for the first several minutes, Cunningham hit a pullup and followed that up with a three to make it a five point game with 3:30 to go in the game. Gingerich hit another three, however, and a couple mistakes gave IMS another 10-point lead. IMS junior Dallas Nye then got out on the break and went for a dunk, but he missed and was given a technical foul for hanging on the rim.
Hawks’ senior Nathan Russell made a driving layup and Van Wyk hit a fader to bring the game to 49-42 with just over two minutes left. Following two free throws by Cullen, Van Wyk hit a runner and it was 52-48 with just a minute to go. Two missed free throws by IMS gave the Hawks renewed life. On what seemed to be a broken possession, Hofer launched a three from close to 30-feet from the basket, and it banked in to pull the Hawks within one point of coming all the way back.
Cullen answered two IMS free throws with a runner to make it 54-53 with 24.5 seconds left on the clock. Thompson caught the press napping, however, and he was fouled by Russell on a layup attempt. After hitting his two free throws, Russell was unable to connect from three, and the game belonged to IMS.
“Down one with 20 seconds to go, we gave ourselves a shot,” Harthoorn said. “That’s what we talked about at halftime, just weathering the storm. We were that close to getting there. They made enough plays to get it done for them tonight.”
It was great year for the Hawks, however, and they will return several of their players for another possible deep postseason run next season.
“I’m going to look at this season as a positive. It was a good season and something to build on. I’ve still got three years left after this,” Cullen said. “So, I still have a ways to go, but it was definitely a good experience. I think it will help in the long run.”
Cunningham, Hofer and Cullen will all return, with Cullen coming into just his second season of high school basketball. That youth serves as a huge benefit for the Hawks, especially because Cunningham and Cullen are already two of the team’s most reliable ball-handlers and scorers.
“TJ means a lot, especially when a team is giving us a lot of pressure like IMS was tonight,” Harthoorn said. “We rely on his ball-handling and his ability to make plays.”
With that being said, Cullen still was disappointed with the loss.
“I think we gave it all we got. We just ended up coming up short. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. We missed some shots at the end that we might have made any other day, but that’s just the way it played out.”
“It’s tough, it always is. I’m certainly proud of they way we played tonight” Harthoorn added. “We got down early, but we kept fighting and stayed tough. That’s what we talked about afterwards. The guys had just a great year. I’m so proud of the way they fought all year.”
Iowa Mennonite School 58, Lynnville-Sully 53
I —17 9 11 23—58
L— 7 9 14 21—53
I — Thompson 24, Gingerich 17, Hostelter 9, Nye 8
L — Cunningham 13, Cullen 12, B. Van Wyk 10, Hofer 9, C. Van Wyk 6, Russell 3