DENVER — Losing games is just a part of athletics, while losing friends, teammates and family is the harsh reality of life.
Lakewood’s girls basketball program made history this season advancing to its first Final 4 and state championship game appearance. The Tigers accomplished greats things on the court while enduring great heartbreak off the court.
Four-year starter Mackenzie Forrest died after a tragic car accident in the early morning after the Colorado High School state basketball championships a year ago. Gone suddenly was one of the bright faces that helped lift the Tigers’ basketball program under coach Chris Poisson to one of the elite teams in the state.
Lakewood honored Forrest this season by retiring her No. 33 jersey that now hangs in a glass case in the Tigers’ gym. Players also wore crazy colored socks during the season, a trademark of Forrest.
One of the purest shooting guards in the state, she had planned to continue her basketball career at Regis University with Lakewood teammate McKenna Bishop, 2016 LHS graduate.
“Chris is a great leader. It hit him really hard,” Lakewood athletic director Tim Walker said before the Tigers took the court Saturday night in the Class 5A girls basketball state championship game at the Denver Coliseum. “He proved and showed that he is the leader everyone was looking for. He was positive and doing the right thing. They have stuck together.”
The Tigers suffered another loss April 25, 2016 when Joe Poisson — assistant coach and father of Chris Poisson — passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 67.
“We knew she (Forrest) hated losing more than anything else. We made it our goal to lose as little as possible,” Lakewood junior Camilla Emsbo said. “That is the only way to honor Little Mac and Papa Poisson, playing the game of basketball and playing it right.”
As the No. 9 seed in the state tournament. Lakewood defeated Denver East, Highlands Ranch and Cherry Creek on the way to a remarkable postseason run.
Through those losses, Lakewood thrived together as a team, school and community this basketball season. That was evident Saturday night when the Cinderella of the 5A girls basketball state tournament took on No. 2-seeded Grandview. Lakewood fans came out in force to cheer on the Tigers.
“When you get knocked down twice, you need people,” Chris Poisson said. “You need to be with people. I’m lucky to be at Lakewood with great people. I needed my team and my team needed me. We needed each other.”
Even after a 61-32 loss against Grandview, the team received a standing ovation as Emsbo hoisted the state runner-up trophy toward the crowd.
“It was a tough loss, but we know we can get through it because we’ve been through so much,” Emsbo said. “Everyone played so hard. You can’t be angry with that. That is what you want in a team.”
Lakewood has had the most successful five-year stretch in the program’s history with a remarkable 108-24 record. Through the darkness of loss, the future is bright for the Tigers’ program that graduates just three seniors in Celeste Barron-Nicoletti, Issy Carbone and Gaby Hayden.
“It’s good pressure,” Poisson said of the Tigers being one of the favorites to contend again for a state title. “We’ll go about our business and see what happens. We’ll set our goals and standards for next season. This year it was Final 4. Next year, it will be a state championship. We know how hard it is to get it.”
While the loss to Grandview kept Lakewood from closing the chapter on the book of the past year with a happy ending, the Tigers know their story isn’t over.
“We are going to learn all the lessons from this season. We are going to remember the perseverance it takes,” Emsbo said after the 22-6 record this year. “We are going to remember how hard it is to get this far. We are going to get back to this point and not go out the same way.”