By Brad Fauber
QUICKSBURG - It's never easy to swallow the pain of defeat.
But for a team like Stonewall Jackson, which has struggled mightily in the program's recent history, even a loss can show just how far a team can come in such a short period of time.
The Generals played step for step with East Rockingham in the Shenandoah District opener for both teams on Tuesday, but the Eagles made some big shots when they needed them most, handing Stonewall Jackson a heartbreaking 67-64 loss in overtime.
Tuesday's loss came right on the heels of the Generals' first win of the season on Monday night against Eastern Mennonite. Much like that win, Tuesday's performance proves there is plenty of reason for optimism in Stonewall Jackson's future.
"Last year in a game like this we would have just fallen down and they would have stepped all over us," Generals junior guard Colton Harlow said. "[Tonight] we kept our ground and worked hard, just kept fighting and kept fighting. It just didn't turn out right in the end."
Stonewall Jackson (1-4, 0-1 Shenandoah) found itself trailing 35-26 at halftime, but the Generals erased the deficit to take a 43-41 lead into the fourth period.
With a boisterous crowd backing both teams, the Generals and Eagles battled back and forth for the first four minutes of the quarter.
Stonewall Jackson senior Trey Alger knocked down a wide open jumper along the baseline to give his team a 48-47 lead with 4:11 to play, and Generals junior Ryan Smith sent the Stonewall Jackson faithful into a frenzy when he nailed a deep 3-pointer from the left wing to give the Generals a 53-48 lead with three minutes remaining.
But East Rockingham (3-4, 1-0) quickly countered, and Eagles sophomore Logan Lam pulled his team to within one point when he converted a traditional three-point play with two minutes remaining.
Stonewall Jackson took a 58-56 lead on a free throw by Alger with 37 seconds left to play in regulation, but East Rockingham's Tyler Hensley hit a clutch fade away jumper to tie the game with 18 seconds left and send the game into overtime.
"That was tough - with the game in our hands there they hit a big shot, and it kind of took a little bit of wind out of our sail," Generals coach Patrick Smoot said. "But we battled, we battled in overtime. The kids fought."
East Rockingham quickly took a 63-58 lead in the extra frame behind a bucket by Hensley and three free throws by junior Shaquan James.
Stonewall Jackson then rallied back to cut the Eagles' lead to 66-64 on two free throws by Harlow with 57 seconds left to play. The Generals nearly tied the game when junior Leo Galindez swiped East Rockingham's ensuing inbounds pass, but Harlow couldn't connect on a lay-up in the paint.
John Wright's free throw with 23 seconds left gave East Rockingham a three-point lead and the Eagles drained the clock after the Generals came up empty on their final possession of the game.
Stonewall Jackson would have never been in the position to win Tuesday night had it not been for an outstanding third period by the Generals. Stonewall Jackson outscored the Eagles 17-6 in the period, and the Generals' intensity on defense appeared to catch East Rockingham a little by surprise.
One of the Eagles' baskets in the third period came on a bizarre play when an East Rockingham skip pass was deflected by a Generals defender near the 3-point arc before soaring through the net.
"We knew we had to pick up the intensity because they were beating us to loose balls and we weren't playing defense really well," Alger said. "In the third quarter we knew we could hang right there with them."
Harlow led the Generals in scoring with a game-high 21 points, and Smith added 11 for Stonewall Jackson. Hensley led East Rockingham with 18 points, 12 of which came in the first half.
Neither team shot well at the free throw line - the Generals hit 25 of 42 (59.5 percent) shots while East Rockingham sank 16 of 37 (43.2 percent). The Eagles held a decisive advantage in turnover margin, forcing Stonewall Jackson into 22 miscues while committing just 10.
The Generals will travel to Buffalo Gap on Friday with some confidence after putting together a pair of solid efforts in their last two games.
"The kids fought, and from where we've been and where we're going, that was great to see," Smoot said. "They know that it hurts to lose like that and they're not willing to settle for that."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org