As tortuous and prolonged as the second half of Sparta’s Class 3 District 11 final Friday with Strafford might have seemed, the proceedings actually went by much too fast for the Trojans.
Things unraveled in a hurry for Sparta in its 56-45 loss to the Indians.
The Trojans were outscored 25-3 during a stretch in they strayed far from their game plan that helped them build a 29-27 lead. As the Indians began to roll offensively, Sparta tried to do too much too soon and turnovers began to mount.
“We talked about our minds needing to be our most powerful weapon,” coach Derik Link said. “But tonight at times our minds got the best of us. We let a lot of things get into our heads. Credit to (Strafford), they made us make hurried decisions.”
“We sped up,” forward Dexter Loveland said. “We can’t do that, especially against a team that likes to run like Strafford does. We got too quick and turned the ball over too much.”
It wasn’t until midway through the fourth quarter that Sparta settled down. But even with scoring 15 points over the final four minutes, the outcome was already decided.
“We shut down for a little bit,” center Jacob Lafferty said. “Late in the fourth, we finally kicked it in gear and cut it down to 11. It was too late.”
Lafferty scored 16 points and Kavan Walker netted four 3-point goals on his way to a 15-point night.
Strafford had seven players score, while Sparta had just four.
The 45 points was Sparta’s lowest output in two weeks. Over the Trojans’ last 11 games, they scored 50 points or more in nine games and won all nine.
Strafford (20-8) has won 14 in a row and held its opponents to under 50 in eight of those games.
“The one thing I was worried about was Strafford being lock-down defenders,” Lafferty said.
Foul trouble reared its ugly head for Sparta late in the first half. Midway through the second quarter, both Loveland and Lafferty had two fouls. Loveland picked up his third foul before the end of the first half.
Loveland and Lafferty had to be keenly aware to not be overly aggressive the rest of the way. Neither fouled out.
“In this type of game, with every kid and every team, you’re going to find some sort of adversity,” Link said. “That was an adversity we had to battle. They did a great job of continuing to play and not letting the foul trouble get the best of them.”
The title tilt drew an overflow crowd, easily the biggest turnout the Trojans have played in front of.
“I remember looking up at everybody and seeing people standing by the doorways, I was astonished,” Lafferty said. “It was fun to play in front of that big of a crowd. We usually don’t have many people come to our games. I hope they enjoyed watching us play.”
“I told the kids before the game that this is an environment they will remember forever,” Link said. “They’ll remember how loud it was and the way the community supported us. They may remember the fact they lost, but they will remember the atmosphere. It was a moment we created in their minds that they will enjoy forever.”
Sparta (18-11) hopes to add more memories to cherish over the next two years. The Trojans’ starting five will return intact next season and Lafferty and guard Walker Loveland are only sophomores.
“On paper, they look like they could be a lot of fun,” Link said of the next two season. “You can’t take anything for granted, though. You never know what could happen. Our challenge to our kids is, ‘Can we continue to grow?’ We want to teach that growth is more important than any result we could have. I’m excited for the growth they’re going to have the rest of their careers.”
"Sparta improved steadily throughout the year," Strafford coach Tyler Ryerson said. "I told Deric his time is coming because he does such a good job with them."
The Trojans improved by 12 wins from last season to this season. Their progress culminated in their semifinal win versus No. 1 seeded Skyline.
“In our 29 games, 19 of the teams we played were above .500 when we played them,” Link said. “Of those 19 teams, 12 either are state ranked or have been state ranked. We felt like we had so many positive things going on and we were one good thing away from it blowing up and this week was that week for us.”
Sparta’s heightened expectations for the future has led to Link accepting an invite for the Trojans to play in the Blue & Gold Tournament next season.
“We want to put as many positive moments and memories as we can in these kids’ lives. What’s greater in southwest Missouri than playing in the Blue & Gold?” Link said. “They’ve accepted every challenge we’ve thrown at them. We’ll take them to another challenge.”
“Two weeks ago, coach brought that up to us after a practice,” Loveland said. “I’m very excited about it. The Blue & Gold has a very good atmosphere and is exciting to watch. Next year will be very exciting, I can’t wait.”
SPARTA (45) — W. Loveland 3 0-1 6, Walker 5 0-0 14, Lafferty 6 3-5 16, D. Loveland 4 0-0 9.
STRAFFORD (56) — Rael 7 3-4 19, Fraker 1 0-2 3, A. Voysey 3 2-6 8, C. Voysey 2 2-2 6, Hunt 1 1-2 3, Soden 5 2-4 15, Lawler 0 2-2 2.
Sparta 11 10 9 15 - 45
Strafford 13 11 18 14 - 56
3-point goals - Walker 4, Soden 3, Rael 2, Fraker, Lafferty, D. Loveland.