DENEGA: Against all odds, Jays advance to Region 8 tourney

One week after an unspeakably tragedy, the Ray boys basketball team had something it could hang its hat on.

Monday night in Stanley, in a gym packed to the rafters full of neon green-clad fans, the Jays defeated Powers Lake to advance to the Region 8 tournament.

“I’m real happy for our kids and our community that we can keep this thing going,” Ray coach Michael Bergstrom said.

On Feb. 23, the Ray community endured the unthinkable when three boys basketball players were lost to a fatal car accident.

When the Jays took the floor on Friday – just four days later – it was a victory in and of itself.

It was a return to normalcy and a rallying point for a town that was hurting tremendously.

Missed shots, turnovers, fouls, timeouts, even winning and losing all seemed inconsequential. The simple fact that the Jays took the court showed the courage of the players, coaches and all involved with the program.

On paper, Ray, was not even supposed to advance out of District 16.

The Jays were the No. 5 seed entering the district tournament, with only the top four teams advance to the Region 8 tourney.

Throw in the emotions of the days leading up to the game and the fact that all three players lost were large contributors to the team – including two starters – and it would have been easy to assume that Ray would not factor into the tournament.

Emotions, understandably, ran high in the first game. The gym was packed. The fans were unrelenting in their support.

The atmosphere surrounding the game and the emotions that came with it could have acted as either a distraction or fuel for a team that had lost so much. The latter could not have been more true as Ray came sprinting out of the gates, seizing an early double-digit advantage.

But this initial burst quickly evaporated when Ray’s opponent, Burke County, battled back to claim its first lead in the third quarter. As if the Jays had not had enough adversity off the court in the past few days, they were staring more adversity straight in the face on the hardwood.

Shots weren’t falling for the Jays. Burke County was cashing in numerous second-chance points, and Ray was noticeably frustrated. The Jays, with an immense amount of mental and physical fortitude, battled back to reclaim their lead en route to holding on for a nail-biting 54-53 win.

So what was the Jays’ reward for an odds-defying victory?

How about No. 1-seeded Kenmare.

Ray had just gotten past another difficult part of their journey back to the everyday basketball grind. The Jays dealt with the initial shock factor of not having their teammates beside them for a game. Now, while still honoring and never forgetting the fallen, they had to go toe-to-toe with the top seed in the district.

Kenmare defeated Ray 56-34 in relatively stress-free fashion.

Now perhaps came the biggest challenge for the Jays. They had to refocus, amongst all the other unthinkable distractions, for a game that would decide whether their basketball season would end or continue for another week, or longer.

Ray took on Powers Lake in a regional-qualifying game. The Jays were coming off a loss, while Powers Lake was fresh off an offensive display in which it scored 87 points en route to defeating Divide County by 30. The two clubs were hurdling in opposite directions. If it was easy to write off Ray before the tournament started, it was perhaps easier now with all the adversity on and off the court Ray was dealing with.

How did Ray respond?

It emphatically defeated Powers Lake 63-45 to punch its ticket the Region 8 tourney.

“I honestly don’t know how they did it,” Bergstrom said. “We have extremely tough kids, resilient kids that found strength in places that I didn’t know existed.”

Ray entered the District 16 tournament undermanned, underdogs and emotionally driven, and against all odds left victorious.

John Denega covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @JohnDenega_MDN.