FRUITPORT – After the first six games of this season, the Fruitport girls basketball team was riding high with a 5-1 record, and co-captains Rhiannon Raleigh and Jorja Blackmer found it easy to keep their teammates pumped up.

The came the Trojans’ annual ride through the brutal O-K Blue conference schedule, playing against high-level teams for two straight months.

The losses started piling up – 16 in a row at the moment, including two non-conference defeats last week – and Raleigh and Blackmer found it more challenging to inspire a positive vibe.

“It was hard to keep myself up, too,” said Blackmer, a senior point guard. “We both had to try to find ways to motivate people. It became really hard, but we both still had to do it. It was our job.”

Fruitport co-captain Rhiannon Raleigh

The two captains have not given up, which Fruitport Coach Brian Packard notices and appreciates.

He said Raleigh, Blackmer and the other seniors have still been working with and motivating the younger girls – and it’s made a real difference.

Obviously there has been a lot of frustration with all the losing, but with the captains continuing to focus, the rest of the group is following along.

“The seniors have been doing a lot of coaching, taking girls aside, talking them up,” Packard said. “Those are the things that stick out. The seniors are leading not just by example but are always encouraging.

“Overall the girls are still pretty positive. They are still mad and frustrated when we lose, which is good to see, then the next day at practice they are back at it.”

Fruitport co-captain Jorja Blackmer

The good news is that there is real hope for a happier ending to the Trojans’ difficult season.

With their O-K Blue opponents behind them, the Trojans will host a Division 2 district tournament this week against a field of teams they know they can compete with.

They open up on Monday night against Orchard View, a team they beat early in the season. If they win, they will play on Wednesday against Montague, another team they beat in the opening weeks.

Suddenly there’s something to get excited about, and Raleigh and Blackmer are all about it.

Raleigh inbounds the ball in a game last week. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“It gives us a good feeling that we can come back from a rough season and try to find our game and how we play again,” said Raleigh, a senior post player. “This is a very big deal to me. It would be amazing to win some games. Me and Jorja talked all summer and all season about how our goal was to win a couple of conference and district games.”

Obviously the conference wins did not materialize, but districts can be a completely different story, as the Fruitport girls saw this week when they watched the boys’ district tournament.

The Fruitport boys had a very similar season, with only one win in the O-K Blue, but battled their way to two exciting victories in districts before falling to Spring Lake in the championship game on Friday.

“That was a good feeling,” Raleigh said about watching the boys team have some success. “We were just saying last night, we were really glad to see them get that far. It gets us amped up and thinking that we can also do this.”

Blackmer brings the ball up the court. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I think that it’s hard to determine how good a team is based on its record,” Blackmer added. “We know what we do in practice and what we’re working on. We have just been playing so many well-rounded teams. But I think everything we’ve been working on can come together now that we’re out of (conference play). I think’s it all going to come together.”

Neither Raleigh nor Blackmer are big stars, but both found their niche and make valuable contributions for the Trojans on the court.

Raleigh has been the team’s leading rebounder all season, a skill she takes a lot of pride in.

She was hoping to score more this season but got off to a rough start offensively and focused mostly on rebounding and getting the ball to open teammates.

But in recent weeks Raleigh has been putting quite a few points on the board. Her best game came against Comstock Park last week, when she recorded a rare double-double with          .

Raleigh takes a jump shot. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“That was exciting,” Raleigh said. “It was a big moment for me. In the beginning of the season I was just kind of struggling with the pressure and was putting a lot of pressure on myself. Then I just took a break from the pressure and got myself together.”

Coach Packard said Raleigh has remained upbeat through all the challenges of her senior season.

“I’m just proud of the way she has handled herself,” he said. “She could have easily been irritated and frustrated, but she doesn’t let things get to her. She just keeps battling like crazy.”

Blackmer, as the point guard, sets up plays, distributes the ball and leads the team in assists.

She’s also very much the vocal leader of the Trojans who constantly tries to keep her teammates pushing forward.

“In the past I wasn’t very skilled,” Blackmer said. “I don’t have very many moves and I’m not a great shooter, so tried to improve my game in other ways. Those are things I have always tried to excel at.”

Packard said Blackmer’s passion and dedication have been crucial.

Blackmer guards an opponent. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“She pushes herself and is tough on her teammates and holds them accountable,” the coach said. “She dragged girls to the gym with her all summer long, and she’s at practice and very much engaged every day. She deserves credit for what she’s done.”

Both captains said they have seen steady improvement in the program since they have been on varsity, and believe better days are ahead for the Trojans. That’s why they keep working with and encouraging younger players. They see it as an investment in the future, even if they won’t be around to help.

“We’ve been looking at the future,” Raleigh said. “I personally know a lot of the younger girls, and it means a lot to inspire them to keep playing and improving in a sport I love.”

One positive note is that Fruitport will be transferring from the O-K Blue to the O-K Sliver next season, which will probably offer a more competitive playing field.

“Once I saw the new conference alignment, I started wishing I could stay another year,” Blackmer said.eddie