MADISON TWP. — As they had done all season, the Vermilion Sailors played with grit, passion and poise in the Division II Northwest district final Saturday afternoon.
Unlike most of the season, that consistent effort did not result in a victory.
In a game filled with ups and downs, the Sailors ultimately fell short, 46-39 to the top-seeded Norwalk Truckers.
Vermilion ended its season 19-6 and said goodbye to one of the best classes to pass through the school in years, including all five starters.
“These are the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached and they never quit,” Vermilion coach Kurt Habermehl said. “This senior class has done a lot for this program and will be missed.”
A field goal drought of more than 10 minutes forced Vermilion to play from behind the entire second half after leading most of the first quarter.
Norwalk extended its lead to a game-high 11 points, 36-25, on two free throws from Ashland commit Brandon Haraway.
Vermilion didn’t fade, responding with six straight points with more than five minutes to play. Mason Montgomery knocked down a deep 3-pointer off an offensive rebound during the run.
“We really got after it in the fourth quarter and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Montgomery said. “It has been awesome to play with these guys and we had a lot of fun this season.”
The Sailors continued to battle during a tense final five minutes.
Vermilion twice got within three points, but Norwalk responded on both occasions.
Jonah Pfeil brought the game within a possession, 37-34, with a pullup jumper in the lane with 2:15 remaining.
The Truckers got a huge layup plus the foul on a putback from Kyle Lacy on the ensuing possession to go back up six.
Sterling Benko, on his first field goal attempt of the game, knocked down a three with 58 seconds remaining to make the score 42-39, but Haraway knocked down six straight free throws to ice the game.
“It all came together for us and it felt great,” Haraway said. “The entire community supported us and each and every player on this team contributed.”
Vermilion came out of the gates firing, knocking down three of its first four field goals, including back-to-back threes from Pfeil and Seth Hurd to open the game.
Unfortunately for the Sailors, the 3-point shot failed them after the hot start. After going 3-for-6 on threes in the first six minutes, Vermilion shot just 2-for-19 the remainder of the game.
Hurd, who was tasked with guarding Haraway most of the game, fouled out late in the fourth quarter.
“We knew that was their best player and I just did what I could to contain him,” Hurd said. “It hurts to go out like this, but I couldn’t be prouder of the way we fought.”
Vermilion scored just three points in the second quarter, letting a 13-9 lead turn into a 16-14 deficit at halftime. Despite the offensive struggles, the Sailors’ defense and composure always kept them in the game.
Vermilion didn’t commit its first turnover until the six-minute mark of the second quarter and had just 10 in the game.
“When you have five seniors as starters you expect them to take care of the ball and we did that,” Habermehl said. “We are a good shooting team, it just didn’t go down for us tonight.”
Embodying the type of unselfish, balanced play they had shown all year, no Sailor scored in double figures. Each starter scored at least five points, three had seven and Hurd led the way with eight.
Haraway scored a game-high 29 points, including a thunderous, two-handed dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy in the second quarter.
“We did a great job of defending their shooters and making it difficult for them,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “Hats off to Vermilion, this senior class had a great career and my heart goes out to Kurt and his kids.”