By Luke Severt
For the Troy Daily News
TROY — After the final buzzer sounded, No. 5 Franklin Monroe’s Ethan Conley — the Cross Country Conference and Southwest District Division IV Player of the Year — leaped and embraced his teammates in celebration and briefly flexed his arms, showing off the shoulder muscles on which he had carried his team.
On the other end of the floor, No. 10 Newton was forced to watch — or try to look away, which can be one of the hardest things to do when empathy and envy take over. What made the walk back to the locker room, across the court, past the jubilant sea of Jets players, students and fans rejoicing a 58-52 sectional title comeback win right there on the Trojan Activities Center hardwood, was just how close the Indians had been.
Newton’s Chet Jamison corralled a loose ball and hurriedly decided to pass it to Ryan Mollette near the baseline. With the overwhelming pressure of a ticking clock looming over his head, Mollette didn’t have time to hesitate. He let off a jump shot and watched it arc through the net as the buzzer sounded, and the jam-packed Newton side of the stands erupted.
The buzzer beater was to end of the third quarter. Newton’s lead grew to 10, and they had every bit of momentum in their favor. It’s safe to assume that fans and players alike were dreaming, hoping, anticipating the program’s first sectional title in over twenty years.
Unfortunately for these hopefuls, chaos ensued. A proverbial nightmare scenario that, according to Newton coach Gavin Spitler, “just makes the loss tough to swallow.”
Only thirty seconds into the fourth quarter, Jamison, a senior and one of Newton’s leaders, drew a technical foul. Conley consequently made both free throws. The Jets then regained possession, and Jackson Crist drained an electrifying 3-pointer. All of a sudden, it was a five-point game.
Mollette then drew a foul and capitalized on both free throws. It could have been the play that stopped the bleeding, eliminated the Jets’ momentum and helped Newton hang on to the lead.
Soon after, Franklin Monroe’s Connor Crist was fouled while making a layup and was sent to the line for an and-one opportunity. He missed his free throw, yet Conley muscled his way to grab the board, and put it back up and in.
The Jets then forced a turnover, and freshman Ky Cool hit a long-distance 3. The game was tied. With six minutes left to play, Franklin Monroe had erased a 10-point deficit — and showed no signs of slowing down.
On the next possession, Conley scored on another putback. The Jets had the lead.
He’d score the game’s next six points and finish with a game-high of 24. Newton could do nothing to stop him, or his team as they fell behind by nine with two minutes to play.
“Conley’s tough to handle,” Spitler said. “That’s why he’s Player of the Year in the conference and the Southwest District. He’s a good player. For high school players, he’s one of the best around if not the best around. Not even just Division IV, but if you go up the ladder. He’s pretty tough.”
The Indians continued to fight, as Mollette scored eight points in the game’s final 90 seconds and led Newton back to a one-possession game, but with a three-point lead and two free throws at the 20-second mark, capitalization on only one opportunity would essentially secure the lead for Franklin Monroe (14-9). A swish and a fist pump from Cool signified he had done just that. Seconds later, the celebration for one team — and the walk to the locker room for the other — began.
“Our guys played hard the whole game, they did what we wanted them to do and they did that well,” Spitler said about his team’s performance. “We were in a pretty good spot, and we just let them get in our heads. It’s an unfortunate way to end the season.”
Newton’s winter ends with a record of 8-16, in what Spitler deemed a bit of a rebuilding year in mid-November before his second season at the helm for the Indians. He feels it has been a successful year for the program, and the culmination came when they upset No. 1 Legacy Christian on Tuesday.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Spitler said. “Newton basketball is going in the right direction, doing the right things, we just have to keep doing that and believing in ourselves.”
Another improvement Spitler mentioned was the support from the community, something that is common for Newton athletics, but had room to grow. After seeing — and hearing — the Indian faithful, it’s safe to say he’s reached that goal as well.
“If you start winning basketball games, people come to watch,” Spitler said. “We were that close to creating a bit of history for our school, but we want to get into a situation when we’re consistently here.
“The crowd support was great. When you get that many people coming out and watching a basketball game, that’s awesome. It gives the kids more energy, and they just believe in themselves more when they’ve got that support.”
It was the last time in an Indians uniform for Newton’s four seniors, as they are bidding adieu to Mollette, who led the team with 19 points, Jamison, Charlie Walker and James Whittaker.
“Those guys have busted their tails,” Spitler said. “Those four guys have done nothing but bust their butts to get better, and they’ve shown the younger guys that work ethic. That was probably the biggest thing that they left.
“They’re talented players, and they’re just good guys. You get to work with these kids, they’re all great kids, and that’s what makes it fun.”