Written by Matt Cizek of the Winchester Sun. Photo by Cam Anderson.
All season long, as they played a schedule that featured only two losing teams and a nearly 70% winning percentage among opponents, the George Rogers Clark Lady Cardinals emphasized gritty play.
Though the results weren’t as desired, the Lady Cards (28-8) showed determination.
In a Final Four matchup against nationally-ranked and two-time defending state champion Sacred Heart (34-3), GRC competed until the final horn in a narrow 57-53 loss.
“I’m extremely, extremely proud of these young ladies because for thirty-two minutes they went out there and laid it on the line”, said Head Coach Robbie Graham.
To begin the game, the Lady Cards started out strong from the three-point line.
Connecting on their first four 3-point baskets – two from both Anaya Chestnut and Kennedy Stamper – they jumped out to a 14-9 lead in the opening quarter.
Though Sacred Heart would tie the game halfway through the second quarter, the Lady Cards held strong for a 1-point, 23-22 lead at halftime.
Led by 21 points from Reagan Bender and 22 from Zakiyah Johnson, the Valkyries started the third quarter strong.
However, despite a 7-point deficit, the Lady Cards would not go away.
In the final minute, they narrowed the deficit to two points behind a basket by Ciara Byars and a three-point shot by reserve Annette Miller.
They would tie the game twice in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, the last time on a three-point shot by Byars that brought the crowd to its feet after hitting three times off the rim and once off the backboard before falling in.
Unfortunately for GRC fans, an 11-2 run by Sacred Heart created a nine-point deficit for GRC.
Although the Lady Cards in the final minute were able to narrow the lead to four points, free throw shooting by Johnson and Bender put the game out of reach.
While Ciara Byars ended the night with 8 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, sister Brianna Byars stood out most on the scoreboard.
Leading all scorers, Byars finished with a game-high 23 points in her last game with the Lady Cards.
The University of Cincinnati commit ends her career with 2,032 points in a Lady Cards’ uniform and 2,255 total.
Coach Graham was asked what Byars’ impact has meant for GRC’s program.
“I don’t think we have enough time today, enough time tomorrow, enough time this week, enough time this month, or enough time this year to speak on how important she’s been”, he said. “She’s a tremendous young lady first and foremost, a leader in our building [and] a leader on our team.”
Also graduating are seniors Trinity Gay and Brook Taylor.
Several players, including Ciara Byars, Kennedy Stamper, Anaya Chestnut, Annette Miller, Jaylynn Goodwin, and Makili Tabor, will return next season.
Though she’ll be a freshman next season, Stamper returns with two years of experience.
“With this new reloading of the team, I’m just [going to] try to direct them and get them where they’re supposed to be”, she said.
Asked about future plans, Coach Graham and the Lady Cards already appear focused.
“We want to be right back in this situation, and go nose-to-nose again”, he said. “We’re [going to] take a little time off, and we’re right back at it.”