All road wins are well-earned


It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve traveled it, or how successful you’ve been while doing so, the road is always unpredictable.

Take it from Destiny Leo. After all, who could have guessed that one of the best and smartest players anywhere would call a missing timeout to seal Cleveland State’s fate in their season opener at Bowling Green last Tuesday? For that matter, who thought that the Vikings, after building a conference championship on aggressive defense and transition points last year, would be dominated in those categories by the Falcons?

“We had two of the best, probably most physical, practices of the year on Thursday and Friday,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said of the days following the team’s return from Northwest Ohio. “They responded. They knew that it was a disappointing performance by us on Tuesday night defensively and in a toughness factor.”

“How are you going to respond to adversity in life?”

“It’s not the battery, it might be the starter.”

The day before CSU’s second game, at Loyola Chicago, and just over 150 miles around Lake Michigan from Gentile Arena, a roadside assistant abruptly declared my Saturday plans about as dead as my engine. That engine had started successfully thousands of times in a row and now wouldn’t, and my naive hope that a jump and a quick trip to Advance Auto Parts would correct the issue had just joined that consistency in the past.

At that moment of panic, I was in Kalamazoo, MI to watch Cleveland State’s women’s tennis team on the final day of their final fall event before heading to Chicago to cover Vikings women’s basketball. Some people might use an extra off day ahead of a game to see The Field Museum and eat at Lou Malnati’s but I typically do, well, stuff like that instead. Or intended to, anyway. Replacing a battery may have delayed me by a few minutes, but this latest piece of news meant that I was likely chained to a waiting room or, best-case scenario, a nearby Starbucks for the whole afternoon.

The road constantly tests your resolve in ways completely unforeseen.

Though Cleveland State led Loyola 17-14 at the end of the first quarter, Leo had already (and uncharacteristically) picked up two fouls, and the Vikings star ultimately spent just eight minutes on the floor during the first half. She wasn’t the only visiting player who found herself at odds with the officials; talented post players Jordana Reisma and Paulina Hernandez eventually found themselves effectively out of the contest with four fouls each. Brooklynn Fort-Davis, who played most of the second half in the middle of the floor for CSU, ended the contest on a tenuous three infractions.

“As a coaching staff, you’re trying to find a level of consistency with really every aspect of the game, what you’re doing team-wise, but you’re also trying to find a level of consistency with each individual player,” Kielsmeier said. “We’re not doing a lot of things consistently really well right now that we can kind of bank and say ‘that’s going to happen.’”

“We have to get our inside game going,” he added. “Our offense is going to have a hard time firing the way it needs to until we get that going. So it will be a big focus of what we’re doing in practice going forward, and we’ve got to get those kids some confidence.”

Player availability and interior production weren’t Cleveland State’s only issues, as the Ramblers found a spark through the zone defense’s classic archnemesis, the three-pointer. Thanks mostly to contributions from Alyssa Fisher (6-for-11 from deep) and Kira Chivers (3-for-7), LUC shot well from behind the arc and slowly began to melt away a Vikings lead that peaked at 19 points midway through the third quarter, after the first 13 points of the second half all went through the same basket. The run and the hefty margin were largely built on CSU’s ability to lock down the paint defensively and secure rebounds, but with the team’s bigs stapled to the bench, that advantage was no longer sustainable.

By the waning stages of the game, the Vikings led by just four.

Part of the excitement of travel is that to some extent, it’s a genuine adventure. Occasionally, there are moments of clarity where you consider, for example, that a rolling metal box functioning in ways far beyond your comprehension is the only thing keeping you from being alone in the freezing dark on some lightly-traveled stretch of I-94 four hours from home.

The shot of adrenaline is fun, most of the time. It’s a bit less fun when that adrenaline is needed for its intended biological purpose, navigating the introvert’s hell of frenzied phone calls to mechanics and towing companies to identify a magic tandem able to help on a weekend. Then one to the bank to assure them that it was indeed you trying to withdraw money from several extremely random out-of-state ATMs, after being informed by the guy hauling your car that the co-worker who processes his card payments was at a funeral for some titan of the local towing industry.

Between that ordeal and an “I’ll get to it when I get to it” shrug from a mechanic named Ken, something inside me snapped. The tennis showcase was already well underway by that point, but I wanted to go to it anyway. No, I needed to go to it. I’d definitely be there after the day’s two rounds of doubles matches, but singles was still within my service box. I grabbed my backpack, signed up for Uber (another thing my introversion hadn’t allowed until that moment of my life), and had Gary drop me off at Western Michigan’s outdoor courts, one of the two facilities listed on the schedule.

Naturally, I guessed wrong, and with Gary long gone by the time of my realization, I ended up walking the three miles over to the West Hills Athetic Club. I was exhausted, drenched in sweat, and had missed the bulk of what I intended to do that day, but I did manage to see nearly all of the singles matches played by the Vikings’ Ella Franz and Selma Tounsi.

“Kyle? When did you get here? It’s like you just spawned,” Franz exclaimed shortly after getting off the court. I suppose in some ways, I had.

So had Leo. After sitting out a lot of the early stages of the game, the senior enjoyed a productive third quarter before being absolutely leveled by Emma Nolan on a foul with 1:45 left. Nevertheless, the Vikes’ leader somehow managed to make the shot while parallel to the floor, then broke into a screaming hulk pose from a seated position to let the Ramblers know that she was not to be trifled with.

“She takes a lot of hard hits,” Kielsmeier remarked.

“After coaching her for four years, you kind of just take it for granted that you know she’s going to get up and it’s not going to faze her. But those are hard hits, she’s not getting knocked to the ground soft. There’s a lot of physicality on her, teams are going to play her that way and she knows it and she embraces it.”

It would be fair to believe that stunning and-one play, which put Cleveland State ahead by 12, might cause Loyola to redouble their efforts to keep Leo away from the free throw line. They did not, and the green-clad sniper would go on to attempt seven free throws during the fourth quarter alone, while LUC’s “Band of Wolves” stood by to yell “you let the whole team down,” should she ever actually miss one.

Regardless, by the final minutes of the game, the Ramblers full-court press had proven fruitful. Fisher knocked down a pair of quick threes, then intercepted Leo, drew a foul, and hit both free throws to make the score 68-64 with 1:13 remaining.

CSU immediately punched back though, breaking the press on the subsequent opportunity to produce a Leo layup.

“She’s just gotten so much better in every aspect of her game, and she’s just a special player,” Kielsmeier said. “Just a special competitor. She just has that ‘it factor,’ she made a big mistake on that press back there and she was upset about it, and then she came down and responded, hit a huge shot right after that. She’s just…she’s special.”

After that crucial moment, Leo bolted down the hard-fought 74-66 result with four free throws in the final 35 seconds, bringing her total from the charity stripe to a program-record 18-for-18. That stat belied an imperfect, tougher-than-expected victory that evaded clean explanation in most ways, but it’s foolish to turn down anything positive earned from the road.

With apologies to another notable group of travelers and in the meantime, call it Manifest Destiny.

Tennis coach Frank Polito and the team graciously offered me a ride to Chipotle and then back to Ken the Mechanic after the tournament wrapped up, vital assistance considering that I was both starving and in no shape to return the same way I had arrived.

As usual, Filippa Frogner ran the music in the team’s van, and her playlist was optimistic and high-energy, perfect for the moment, while also skewing about 20 years older than you’d expect.

Indeed, everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

Kielsmeier was also alive, but exhausted and ready to get home with a 1-1 record.

“We knew when we put this schedule together that we were going to have a young team within the system, and these two road games were going to test not only how we played on the court between the lines, but just how we travel, how we prepare to play, and just a lot of different factors,” he said. “Hopefully we can learn a lot from what happened in both of these games and we can find a way to really get going now.”

“This group is only going to continue to get better, but in the meantime, you’ve gotta find a way to win games when you’re not at your best.”

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