SPRINGFIELD – Sometimes, heartbreak is the best motivator. Danaeja Romero-Ah Sam got her heart broken on March 12, 2022 when the 7th-ranked Springfield girls basketball team fell to No. 9 Crescent Valley 50-39 in the Class 5A state championship game.
“After the loss (in 2022), I felt some type of way, because we weren’t supposed to lose that game,” Romero-Ah Sam said.
Romero-Ah Sam was named the Class 5A State Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2022, leading her team to a 21-8 record and a second-place finish. And yet, the entire team felt like it had failed.
“You’d think getting to the championship game, we would have been really excited about that,” said Joe Williamson, Springfield’s head coach since the 2020-21 season. “But I think just the loss, the pain of that loss, I mean, it was devastating to get there and lose. And we had to live with that for the whole offseason.”
No time to mope
Instead of staying down in the dumps, Romero-Ah Sam picked herself, and her team, back up quickly.
“Club season came, and obviously the loss was still in my mind. So there was no way I wanted to lose anything at that point. Even in practice, I took it way too serious,” she said. “We went into summer league, and we didn’t lose any games because I was taking it so seriously. Just months of training everything because, to me, losing is not an option. I don’t like losing, I’m really competitive.”
Romero-Ah Sam and the Millers entered last season as favorites to get back to the state title game, and they didn’t disappoint. The Millers entered the state championship game 23-5, including 12-0 in the Midwestern League, and hadn’t lost to a Class 5A opponent all season.
The cherry on top of the top-ranked Millers making it to the state title game? The opponent on the court with them was the same Crescent Valley team that had beaten them the year before. On March 10, 2023, almost a year to the day of her heartbreak, Romero-Ah Sam had a chance at the retribution she’d been craving.
“I really wanted to play Crescent Valley in the preseason, like so bad. But we played them in summer league, and we beat them,” Romero-Ah Sam said. “So when we met them back in that championship game, I was like, there’s no way we’re losing this.”
Avenging a loss
It wasn’t just Romero-Ah Sam that craved that revenge either. Top to bottom in the program, her teammates all entered the state tournament hoping they’d face off against Crescent Valley.
“That did motivate us for sure, because everything we talked about was to get back, and get back and win,” Williamson said. “The fact that we got back and got a chance to play the same team, and to avenge that loss, was great.”
The first half of the state title game was back-and-forth, with Crescent Valley taking a 20-16 lead with 2:22 left in the half. The next 12 minutes of game time were all Springfield, though, as the Millers rattled off a 19-2 run, including an 11-0 run in the third quarter. Romero-Ah Sam finished the game with 17 points and 6 steals as the Millers won 44-29.
“All of this was the goal, but I didn’t know that I was going to fully accomplish it. Like, I wanted to be the best, to come out and win a title. And that was the goal for sophomore year too,” Romero-Ah Sam said. “Which we met, we got to the championship, and I got the 5A State Player of the Year. But the only thing that we didn’t get was the win. So that’s why junior year I was like, ‘Nah, we’re locking in.’”
Romero-Ah Sam locked up her second-straight state player of the year award, and did it with her family alongside her. Danaeja’s younger sister Darissa was a freshman on last year’s team who contributed key minutes all season. And her father Luis Romero was on the sidelines or in the stands all year recording and making highlight videos for the team.
“I cried. I cried at the end of the season,” Romero said. “What I’m looking at right now is, I have a poster of (Danaeja and Darissa) running onto the floor together (after the state title win), holding each other’s hands and screaming from the top of their lungs. For me to see all their hard work, to get to the 5A state championship and win it all … it’s like everything that I’ve ever hoped for.”
The win meant more for the family because they did it at Springfield. The family “bleeds blue,” according to Romero.
“I went to Springfield High School, their mom went to Springfield High School. Danaeja had opportunities to go to other schools,” Romero said. “But in the end, you know, we stuck with what we know. And something that we always say is that we’re loyal to the soil.”
Romero-Ah Sam grew up watching her uncle Nick play sports at Springfield as well, so she knows how important Springfield is to the family, and how important her family is to her.
“They always push me to be better and never give up. That’s why I don’t like losing, because our whole family is competitive. Like, I know at Thanksgiving, we’re about to be the most competitive family in games because everybody’s so competitive,” Romero-Ah Sam said. “I don’t like losing, and the only reason I don’t like losing is ’cause I don’t like letting my family down.”
All in the family
Romero said the competitiveness in the family has always been there, even when the girls were young.
“She’s always been competitive. Especially with her little sister, right. Like, I would ask them to do something for me, and they’d be like, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it,’” Romero said. “Even when they play video games they are super competitive. They’ve just always been like that.”
The competitiveness will need to be on display once again this season as the Millers are no longer the ones chasing the title. As the defending champs, they know they’ll have a target on their backs every time they step on the court. For Romero-Ah Sam, being the one chased is even more fun than doing the chasing.
“I am more motivated. Our team talks about how, because we’re now the team with the title, they’re gonna want to try even harder to beat us,” she said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”