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During 1983 and 1984, Flint Northwestern stepped out of rival Flint Northern's shadow and into the spotlight as the premier girls basketball team in the state.

In an effort to promote educational athletics by showcasing some of the great teams of past years, the Michigan High School Athletic Association instituted a program called "Legends Of The Games" in 1997, which honors its third girls basketball school at halftime of the Class A Final this weekend.

For five seasons, Head Coach Roger Zoll and his Flint Northwestern basketball squad patiently waited for their turn. Each year, the lofty accomplishments of their Saginaw Valley Conference rival, Flint Northern, overshadowed the success of the Wildcats program.

For half a decade, Northern had ended Northwestern's tournament dreams. In four of those five seasons, 1978 to 1981, Northern finished the year as Class A champions. In 1982, it earned MHSAA runner-up honors. Sporting six seniors, Northern's 1983 squad was again favored to make a sixth consecutive trip to the final round.
On the other side of town, Zoll had assembled a starting five comprised of all underclassmen. Led by juniors Taraisa Wills, Paulette Backstrom, and Cynthia Lyons, and sophomores Shanta Burks and Tonya Edwards, the Wildcats were young but experienced.
In 1982, they opened the season with five consecutive victories before losing to Northern. The margin was 15 points, but Zoll's starting lineup included only one senior. Edwards, a 5-8 freshman guard, scored 31 points in that game. With a full season under her belt, Edwards was already a highly regarded player.
In 1983, the Wildcats again recorded five straight victories before their conference showdown with unbeaten Northern. Zoll's squad opened up a 31-11 lead midway through the second quarter, as Northern suffered from poor shooting, fouls and turnovers. Northwestern fought off a third-quarter rally by the Vikings and coasted to a 60-46 win before a packed house. Edwards finished with a game-high 24 points and five assists.
With the win, Northwestern began its rapid ascent to the top of the state rankings. The Wildcats were unbeaten in 15 straight, but the season was far from over. The rematch with Northern was the first in a pair of formidable tests.
The second scheduled showdown with their crosstown nemesis was a battle for first place in the conference. Northern, 11-3 overall, was still smarting from the early season defeat ­ its only loss in conference play. A crowd of 1,300 watched the host Vikings jump out to a 17-2 lead in the first quarter, and a 36-23 halftime advantage. Yet, thanks to solid play and Northern foul trouble, Northwestern roared back and left the gym with a 68-57 victory. Edwards notched 29 points, while Backstrom added 19, including 10 without a miss from the free-throw line. Coming off the bench to help the inside game, Wills added 14 points.
Four days later, Zoll's squad met defending Class A champ, Farmington Our Lady of Mercy. Northwestern watched Mercy erase an eight-point deficit in the final minute of regulation and steal a 51-48 victory in overtime.
In the opening rounds of the tournament, both Northern and Northwestern trounced their opponents en route to the seemingly inevitable showdown in this civil war. Edwards scored 12 in the first half, but the Vikings led 20-19 at the intermission. But once again, foul trouble doomed Northern. Neither team shot well from the field, but the Wildcats were 18-of-30 from the charity stripe. Wills dominated the inside, scoring 10 of her 11 points in the second stanza while senior Soroya Pendleton came off the bench to score seven.
"We've been knocking on the door," said Zoll after the game "Now it's our turn."
Northwestern disposed of Midland Dow and Flint Kearsley in the Regionals and after five years, the city of Flint was sending a new representative to the Quarterfinals.
A win over Waterford Kettering set the stage for a rematch with Farmington Mercy in the Semifinals. The Marlins concentrated on shutting down Edwards, holding the sophomore to 12 points. This time a new underclassman emerged as the hero. Freshman guard Stephanie Tipton nailed three 14-foot jump shots at the start of the fourth quarter to lead the Wildcats to a 44-41 victory. Mercy, which had defeated Northern in the Finals the previous year with a fourth-quarter rally, pulled to within a point with 2:46 to play. This time however, Northwestern held the Marlins scoreless in their final four possessions to advance to the title game. It was Zoll's 100th career coaching victory.
With a 50-47 win in the Class A Final over Harper Woods Regina, Northwestern finally burst into the spotlight, but it was anything but easy. The Saddlelites had easily handled Northwestern's powerful press and led by four, 47-43, with 4:23 to play.
The Wildcats buckled down defensively. Wills scored on a rebound to pull within two. On the inbound pass, Backstrom came up with a steal ­ her seventh of the game ­ and dished off to Edwards who tied things up with 3:34 left. Cynthia Lyons added a free throw with 58 seconds remaining to push the Wildcats into the lead.
A three-second violation on Regina then allowed Northwestern to work the clock. Center Shanta Burks took a quick pass from Wills and scored the final points from under the basket.
Following the game, Zoll was quick to praise his assistant coach, Tony Holliday, for the success of the team.
"This young man really dedicated himself with these girls and gave them the knowledge and discipline they needed to succeed," Zoll said.
Northwestern, which opened its doors in the fall of 1964, had never won an MHSAA title in any sport. The boys produced a pair of runner-up teams in the spring of 1975 ­ one in basketball and one in track. The girls cage squad advanced to the 1975 quarterfinals before the rise of Northern.
With all five starters returning, Northwestern was the natural pick to return to the Finals in 1984. The Wildcats did not disappoint, cruising through the regular season undefeated.
Edwards again paced the team, averaging over 24 points per game, while Wills earned all-state honors at forward. The team tore through the District and Regional rounds of the tourney with ease. Victories over Pontiac Northern and Detroit Cass Tech boosted the team into the Finals for the second time.
A total team effort was required in the championship game with Benton Harbor. Edwards, who finished with a game-high 17 points, missed the majority of the second quarter after picking-up her third foul. Wills, one of six seniors playing their final prep game, pulled down 10 boards. She was one of three Wildcats with eight points as Northwestern defeated the Tigers, 48-38. Senior Darcyl Abernathy and sophomore Janice Cooper stepped in and helped the Wildcats go on a 7-0 run during Edward's absence.
With the win, Northwestern extended its winning streak to 39 heading into the 1985 campaign. Edwards, now a 5-11 senior, was joined by Burks, Tipton, Cooper and Carolyn Fitzpatrick in the starting lineup, and the team was poised for a third consecutive trip to the championship game. Conference rival Midland Dow stopped the winning streak at 45, but it was the only blemish on an otherwise flawless season.
Again, the Wildcats advanced through the tournament to the Class A title game. This time, however, they were stopped, 45-36, by Detroit Martin Luther King.
Edwards was held to 14 points, but ended her career as the state's all-time leading scorer with 2,307 points.
"It would have been nice to win again," said Edwards after the game, "But I'll settle for what I've won. I've been to the top before and nobody can take that away from me."
--Ron Pesch
Ron Pesch is the historian for the MHSAA. To submit story ideas and potential statistical records, write to Pesch at 1317 Lakeshore Drive, Muskegon, MI 49441.