Lindsay Keener was a major part of perfection.
And so was her family.
A 2006 Kenai Central High School graduate, Keener played a pivotal role on the 2008-09 George Fox University women's basketball team, helping the Bruins close the books on a 32-0 season by beating the Washington State University-St. Louis Bears, 60-53, in the NCAA Division III national championship game in Holland, Mich., on March 21.
Keener's parents, Tim and Marilyn, and brother Clint, all moved to the Newburg, Ore., area, rented a place from December through February and were able to attend every game. They also hosted a team dinner each Thursday night.
"Without a doubt," Bruins coach Scott Rueck said of the Keener family playing a vital role in the season, "and they traveled everywhere with us, so it was very special."
Keener, 21, called it a blessing to have them there.
"It kind of became a ritual. After we kept winning we had to keep doing that," she said of the team dinners. "We have some girls from California and Montana and their families can't be there all the time, and my family being from Alaska, they know how it is.
"They kind of subbed in," she added. "They were helpful and encouraging to those girls, too, kind of took them under their wing. So that was kind of neat."
Making the feat even more impressive was the team's lack of experience. The Bruins had no returning starters and 10 freshmen on the roster at the beginning of the season. They were predicted to finish no higher than fifth in the Northwest Conference.
"We definitely came into it kind of thinking it was going to be a rebuilding year with only four returners and 10 freshmen," Keener explained. "We were kind of hoping to have a winning season and took it one game at time. Next thing we knew we were undefeated."
Keener, a junior and one of only four returners, helped make the memorable journey possible.
"All four of them had a huge role in helping these freshmen along that we were dependent on them teaching them what they learned those first two years," said Rueck, who was named the national coach of the year. "Lindsay embraced that and worked hard in the offseason and became a significant contributor."
It was a different role for Keener. But one she relished nonetheless.
"The four of us had to step up and be leaders," she said. "It was really awesome. ... It was a really great experience and a great opportunity."
It paid off, too, as George Fox became just the sixth undefeated national champion since the inception of the NCAA women's D-III tourney in 1982 and the first Northwest Conference team, men or women, to capture a D-III crown.
But it wasn't easy.
Washington State took a 23-22 lead on the heels of an 11-4 run with 5:11 to play in the first half. But Keener capped a 16-6 spurt by George Fox with a 3-pointer at the buzzer in sending her team into the break with a 38-29 edge.
Keener, who entered the game when the Bruins' point guard picked up her third foul, was just 1-for-7 on treys during the season.
"She's not a 3-point shooter. It was her second make of the year," Rueck said. "I thought it was one of the biggest shots of the game. ... It was a huge momentum lift going into halftime.
"It was my favorite play of the game."
The original play was designed for someone else, Keener said, and when the defense collapsed, the ball found its way into her hands.
"My game mainly is playing good defense and driving the ball and creating opportunities for my teammates," she said. "She kicked it to me and I knew I had to shoot it because there was only a couple seconds left."
Then it went through the net, a moment she later realized was crucial.
"It felt good leaving my hands. I wasn't planning on shooting it at all," Keener laughed. "It was definitely one of the biggest shots I ever hit, though, that's for sure."
Washington State, perennial national title contenders, won four straight crowns from 1998-2001 and lost in the final game in 1994 and 2007.
"If you're going to do it, to play the most storied program in Division III in Washington University just made it even more special," Rueck said.
Keener, who didn't start but was part of the top eight in the rotation, averaged only 1.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and one assist in 12.5 minutes a game this season, yet contributed in many other ways not seen in the box score.
"She just is a tenacious defender and rebounder," Rueck said. "She's probably our best hustle player."
Attention is now focused on next season, for which George Fox is hoping to land a 6-foot-5 recruit to replace the lone senior who will be departing and just so happened to be the team's 6-4 center.
It still won't be easy, though.
"At the same time we know we're going to have a huge target on our backs," Keener said. "We're really excited."
Paige Blackburn, a 2008 Soldotna High School graduate and valedictorian, continues to thrive in track and field at the collegiate level.
A freshman at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Blackburn has competed this year in the shot put, discus and javelin, earning the highest score for a freshman by finishing seventh in the shot put at the Mountain West Conference Indoor Track Meet.
Blackburn, who won consecutive state titles in both the shot and discus during her junior and senior seasons at SoHi, was ranked fourth in the shot put in the entire history of the Division I program and also was ranked eighth out of western U.S. D-I schools. She also made history in two of the program's all-time lists during her outdoor debut on March 21 to 22, when she recorded the fifth-best shot put toss (42 feet, 9.75 inches) in program history and also notched the 10th-best discus distance (139-9) ever.
Her success also has carried over to the classroom, as she was named to the dean's list for education, the commandant's list for military accomplishments and knowledge, the athletic director's list for athletic accomplishments and abilities, and the school's supervisor's list, only achievable if recognized by the first three.
Also a 2008 Soldotna graduate, Ryan Shelton finished seventh with a throw of 49-9 in the shot put in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships on Feb. 27 to 28, making him the only freshman in the finals.
Shelton, who also placed 13th in the men's weight throw, is a freshman at Chadron State College in Chadron, Neb.
Joseph Shirley, currently a senior at Soldotna, has signed a letter of intent to play football at Mayville State University in Mayville, N.D., next season.
SoHi's Liebner surprises field with victory
Soldotna High School graduate Andy Liebner won the 33rd Bieg Piastow 30-kilometer freestyle ski race on March 8 in Poland. Liebner said he was seeded into the second wave of the race, meaning he started two minutes behind the first wave.
Liebner said he worked his way through most of those 200 skiers over the course of the 30 kilometers. About 100 meters from the finish, Liebner saw the three leaders ahead of him. The leaders thought they were racing for first place, but since Liebner started two minutes behind the leaders, Liebner got the surprise victory. Liebner finished with a time of 1 hour, 15 minutes, 7 seconds. The three racers who had thought they fought for first place finished at 1:16:58, 1:16:58 and 1:16:59.
This winter, Liebner also competed in the British National, Inter Service and Army Biathlon and Cross Country Championships from Jan. 23 to Feb. 6.
Liebner finished first in the 10-kilometer cross country pursuit, third in the 12.5-kilometer biathlon mass start, fourth in the 10-kilometer biathlon sprint and fifth in the 20-kilometer biathlon individual.
Liebner also competed in February in Jachymov, Czech Republic, and won the 12.5-kilometer biathlon and the 10-kilometer biathlon sprint.
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