By Mitchell Boatman
Two girls had played partial seasons on varsity, while a three-year varsity player elected not to go out for her senior year.
That left Hesperia with seven girls on the varsity – including just two seniors and one junior – and a brand new coach to try to piece it together.
Coach Scott Force knew it would be difficult from the beginning.
“I set the bar low because I knew what I was coming into,” said Force, whose team is 1-17. “When I was finding out that a few of the girls who were supposed to be playing decided not to play, it was hard to stay positive.”
The Panthers, as expected, have struggled badly through the regular season, which ends this week. They started with 13 straight defeats, and the losses weren’t close.
They opened the season with a 61-11 loss to Holland Black River. The next game was a 60-11 loss to Mason County Eastern. There was a 59-4 loss to Hart and a 62-4 loss to Lakeview.
The Panthers were outscored by an average of 61-10 through the first 13 games.
One game in that stretch was a 56-0 loss against Holton, which senior Dezi Nowlin described as the toughest of the season. But she said she managed to keep her head up after the drubbing.
“I just remembered there were more games ahead and we got to play (Holton) again,” she said.
That kind of patience and positive attitude paid off on Feb. 2, when Hesperia finally broke through for a victory, 43-33 over Godfrey Lee.
“After we won it was kind of that weight off, especially for me,” said Force, who combined the varsity and JV teams for the game. “It felt pretty dang good to get that done.”
“It was awesome,” said Olivia Wilbur, the team’s only junior. “Going the whole season without a win was really hard.”
The most fitting analogy might be the one given by senior captain Mandy Purdy.
“It was like Christmas morning when you’re opening presents,” she said.
The thrill of victory was followed by more agonizing defeats. The Panthers went on to lose their next four games, including a 66-1 loss to Fruitport Calvary Christian.
But the team has remained amazingly upbeat all year, even before their victory.
The players have focused on improvement rather than finals scores. Force credits a lot of that to Purdy.
“She has been like a mom to this team and whenever anything negative has gone on she’s been the one to take care of it,” he said.
Purdy, a first year varsity player, has provided leadership despite her lack of experience.
“It’s my senior year, so it’s the last time I’ll play basketball,” she said. “So I’m just keeping everyone going, not only so I can have fun, but so they can have fun too.”
There have been definite signs of improvement, despite the latest losing streak.
The Panthers lost 64-23 to Morley-Stanwood, which beat them 64-11 the first time around. They were also much better against Holton, registering 12 points, which was a lot better than zero.
Hesperia ends the regular season with a game at Pentwater on Tuesday and at home against Lakeview on Friday. The district tournament is next week.
Purdy and Nowlin say they are focused on building a foundation for the future. Even if they lose most of the time, they want to set a positive tone for the younger players who will return and hopefully have better results.
Wilbur, who will return as a senior next year, knows her team needs to keep at it.
“We need to stick together and not all quit and come back next year, because we’ve done so much together and improved a lot,” she said.
Some may see the Panthers’ season as a long, hard road full of negatives. Look closer, however, and you’ll see a team of girls playing for each other, working to get better, and managing to have fun.
“I’ve only played for a few years, but I think that this is by far the best team ever just because of how close we’ve gotten,” Purdy said. “We take the losses and build it into so much more. It makes it a lot of fun, and that’s the most important thing.”