The scene at Van Noord Arena at Calvin University on March 15, was an unpleasantly familiar one for the East Lansing girls basketball team. A blue-chip opponent from west Michigan. Good shots — shots the Trojans expect to make — missing, repeatedly. A second-straight loss in the state quarterfinals.
And another senior class — one that played together as a group since middle school and lost once in conference play during their high school careers — falling short of the ultimate goal: A state championship.
The moments right after a team falls short in its pursuit of a championship are often dominated by warped perspectives. A loss in a game — especially a highly meaningful one like this one — can seem like a catastrophe for those involved. Along with playing for a trip to the state semifinals at the Breslin Center, the Trojans were also vying to send off their head coach, Rob Smith, with a championship. Smith, after 20 years at the helm of the ELHS girls basketball team, is retiring from coaching.
Yet, just after the 54-43 loss to Rockford that ended the season, the group of five seniors — Soraya Timms, Ella Miller, Payton Baker, Corinne “Corkie” Jones, and Gracie Emerson — hadn’t lost the perspective at all.
Through five games in the state tournament, they had played some of their best basketball despite injuries and illness. They hadn’t been able to achieve the ultimate goal, yet recognized all the boxes that did get ticked all along the way and the relationships that have been built among them will extend well beyond basketball.
From coach on down, what made it click for Smith and the East Lansing girls basketball program for so long was laid plain.
“We love each other so much and we love our coaches,” Baker said, standing hand-in-hand with the other four seniors after their loss to Rockford.
And for five games in March, the Trojans did everything in their power to keep it all going.
Game 1 (Mar. 2, 2022): District semifinals vs. DeWitt — EL wins, 67-42.
While the postseason often provides a chance to reset and get a fully healthy roster, that was not the case for the Trojans in 2022. Going into their first playoff game, the Trojans would be without guards Sophia Klinger (vertigo) and Emerson (foot surgery), plus center Carmel Eiland (torn ACL). On top of that, Baker was just getting back into playing regular minutes after missing almost the entire year with a torn ACL, herself.
And DeWitt has played the foil to East Lansing before and was the main team the Trojans had to beat out for a league title this season. The opener was no gimme.
It didn’t matter, because ELHS had Timms and DeWitt didn’t.
“She’s the kind of kid that gets up and goes to the MAC at 5:30 in the morning, OK. And then she’s the first one in the gym after school,” Smith said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t even know how it happens, but she’s here when the bell rings. Her sixth hour teacher must be like, ‘Oh yeah, go ahead, honey. You’re a 4.12, you can go down a little early.’ Because then she comes in and she’s got 200 shots up before the next player walks in. So, that’s why she does what she does.”
As point guard, Timms makes the Trojans tick, trusted to take care of the ball and use her innate ability to make the right pass on time, on target. All together, it’s a potent combination. Against DeWitt’s man-to-man defense, Timms thrived getting into the pick-and-roll and dissecting the opposition from there.
East Lansing got hot from deep and that, in concert with Timms and a stout defensive performance, guided the Trojans to a win. Smith remarked in the postgame scrum that it was perhaps the Trojans best performance of the season.
For East Lansing to win a district championship, it’d need a similar performance against Haslett two days later. But less than 24 hours after the Trojans first win in the 2022 state tournament, Smith had good reason to lament his team’s chances.
Jones, after starting and playing a normal share of minutes against DeWitt, went to the hospital later that night after experiencing severe pain in her torso/abdomen. By the morning on March 3, she was OK, though it wasn’t clear when she could return to playing basketball.
Walking into practice later that afternoon, Smith knew the Trojans needed to lean on Timms, Miller and Baker to crack Haslett’s zone and carry ELHS to a regional.
Addressing the players left standing before practice began, Smith laid it plain: Their back was against the wall, and they needed someone to rise to the occasion.
Game 2 (Mar. 4, 2022): District finals vs. Haslett — EL wins, 70-44.
Miller is the type of player who makes for a great teammate — and a pain of an opponent. The Trojan’s center, along with being a floor-stretching big with a penchant for blocking shots, plays with a distinct edge.
She’s always willing to go to the floor for a loose ball, contest a shot or body up a defender. There are out-of-control moments leading to foul trouble or a spell on the bench, but when she’s at her best, Miller is like a runaway train.
“I’ve learned — especially playing for East Lansing — we’ve been on top for years now, and you always gotta go out with the chip on your shoulder because you know, you’re being hunted by every other team,” Miller said.
When the Trojans needed that juice more than ever, Miller delivered a 29-point outing.
She poured in points from inside early, attacking the middle areas of the zone. But things took off when Miller started hitting shots from the outside. The Trojans got comfortable working around the Vikings zone, and Miller kept getting open 3 after open 3. She shot with a calmness that belied the moment, as if it were practice shots in an empty gym.
Each made 3 led to a corresponding eruption among the East Lansing fans, as Miller’s own play sparked a home-game-like atmosphere for the Trojans — in Haslett’s gym.
“We just have our own lanes and we are able to just play off of each other,” Timms said. “And we each know that if Ella plays really well, then that just makes me better, and same for everyone.”
After the Trojans received their district championship trophy, Smith was intercepted in the celebrations by Miller’s father, Caleb.
Smith explained to the proud father that Miller’s performance was one of the best single-game personal performances he’s seen as a coach at East Lansing.
And it made sense, in the end, that the player who shied away from little in her career would deliver an all-time performance when the moment required it.
Game 3 (Mar. 8, 2022): Regional semifinals vs. Parma Western — EL wins, 54-46
With Jones working back into the fold, the overall health outlook for the Trojans prior to regionals was getting better. Still, the Trojans would be relatively short handed as they played a rematch with a Parma Western High School team they lost to by one early in the season.
Smith explained that the Trojans were up big, and he rolled a lot of reserves through the game to get them playing time. That allowed a comeback. He was confident the Trojans should’ve won that game, and should have a good shot to win the rematch, albeit with a few players still out.
Smith has had a lot of experience in figuring out how to navigate a team through the state tournament. The 2021-22 season is his 20th and final year coaching the Trojans. In that span, EL has won a state title (2010) and lost in two other state title games (2008, 2018). They’ve won 10 regional titles. In the last two seasons, the Trojans have reached back-to-back state quarterfinals.
While Smith is at the center of this success, he knows it wasn’t possible without a litany of people who helped out along the way.
“When I started off at East Lansing, I was blessed to have talented players and also the system and the knowledge to put in — and the willingness to work hard and to instill that into the program. And to bring on coaches who were great assistants and really good people,” Smith said. “And really the culmination of it all, in my opinion, isn’t so much the number of wins over the years, but the number of relationships that have been built.”
The reason Smith is walking away from this sustained run of success is simple: He wants to spend more time with his wife Amanda and 11-year-old son, Tate. And though he is completely at peace with his decision to hang up the whistle, Smith badly wanted this season to go as long as possible, namely for the group of seniors.
“These seniors — and this is why they were so good last night — they want it for the team,” Smith said after the win over DeWitt.
So, against Parma Western, with Jones back in the lineup, Smith was coaching hard and the Trojans were going all out. Getting Jones back so soon was also a huge bonus. On the Thursday after she had gone to the hospital, Smith had no notion of when she’d be available to play again. Five days later, she was in the lineup.
Smith said last year that Jones is the best defender on the team. Her combination of size and top-tier athleticism means EL can deploy her in a number of ways defensively, and she’s capable of excelling in whatever scheme.
It was a cliche “survive-and-advance” win, with the Trojans slowing the pace down and winning with free throws at the end. But in a single-elimination tournament, when it’s all on the line, an eight-point win, however ugly, will suffice — especially against a team that already beat you.
Game 4 (Mar. 10, 2022): Regional final vs. Battle Creek Lakeview — EL wins, 56-44.
If there were any doubts about Smith’s claim that he was “at peace” with his decision to retire, you just needed to see him on the sidelines of EL’s regional final game with about 4:30 left to play. The Trojans were maintaining a 3 point lead with a trip to states on the line, and Smith was chuckling and joking with a referee about a recent sequence — all while his team ran an offensive set.
And after the win Smith soaked in the euphoria of another regional championship, and another last for him. Amid the furor, He spent a moment with Payton Baker’s grandmother, a regular in the stands for her granddaughter’s games.
Baker — along with Klinger, who had finally gotten healthy from vertigo — played a key role down the stretch as the Trojans sought to ice the game. She hit some key triples and made her free throws as the Trojans kept Battle Creek Lakeview at arm’s length.
Earlier in the game, she gave the Trojans a spark on defense and helped get the offense flowing on a night where it was stagnant and lurched along at times. It wasn’t the best game Baker has ever played, but it was a game she considered herself fortunate to be in.
In the summer of 2021, Baker tore her ACL playing basketball in the summer. She had surgery to repair the ligament and set the goal of getting healthy and rehabbed in time to play on senior night. Her doctors advised that it was an ambitious but realistic goal, barring any setbacks.
“When I found out I was so mad that I couldn’t play,” Baker said. “But then I knew that I just had to work super hard to do my recovery well, my exercises well, so that I could be out there again. So it’s just nice to know that I did as much as I could, and I did it really well so that I could be out here today and meet my goal of wanting to play at the end of the season when that might have not been a possibility if I didn’t work as hard as I did.”
There were arduous moments and hard days away from the game, but with no major setbacks, Baker made her season debut at East Lansing’s senior night sporting a large leg brace. She buried a 3 late in the game and the crowd roared.
The regional final against Battle Creek Lakeview was only Baker’s seventh game back from injury. But she played with abandon and confidence, stabilizing the Trojans when they needed it most and setting them up for a return trip to Van Noord Arena.
Game 5 (Mar. 15, 2022): State quarterfinals vs. Rockford — EL loses, 54-43.
Maybe it’s something in the air in Grand Rapids. Or the wood the court is made out of at Van Noord Arena. Or the larger arena makes it harder for shooters to get sighted in.
Whatever it is, the Trojans have had a run of bad luck in the last two outings there. Against Hudsonville in the 2021 state quarterfinals, the Trojans executed their gameplan as desired but just couldn’t get a 3 to fall. In 2022, they made a number of 3s but missed handfuls of layups and floaters at the rim.
The end result in both games was the same: A loss, the end of the run, and the setting in of a harsh reality.
The seniors tearfully walked off the court, consoling each other, as Smith embraced his family and friends in attendance before shaking hands with fans on the way to address his own team.
Smith briefly addressed reporters in the dimly lit hallway outside the locker room before going in to get seniors for interviews. A few minutes later, all five emerged, holding hands as they were interviewed.
To the end, they were in it together.