Gielczyk: Silver Lining for Sabers
Maybe the Manistee Catholic Central girls basketball team didn’t give its fans much to cheer about in a 50-29 loss to Pentwater in the second game of an MHSAA Class D district seminal doubleheader at Manistee Catholic Central last Wednesday night.
After the Sabers had drawn to within five of the Falcons, 9-4, early in the first quarter everything went south. Pentwater finally began to gain separation from the Sabers, and the game quickly became a rout.
But, despite the lack of excitement following Mason County Eastern’s heart throbbing, 47-45 nail-biter against the Walkerville Wildcats in the opening game of the night in the other semifinal it didn’t stop the Sabers’ student section from enjoying itself, and lending a true tournament atmosphere to the proceedings.
While the Sabers’ deficit grew larger and larger throughout the night, the students — all dressed in rather outlandish outfits with the boys resembling native island girls, complete with grass skirts — kept a lively banter going until the final buzzer.
Then, as the final seconds drained away the Sabers’ season, they broke out into the school fight song as the season melted away, along with the team’s chances of winning a fourth straight district title.
It seemed to have a positive effect on the players, who kept battling throughout although it became obvious early on that they would not be advancing to Friday night’s district championship game on their home floor.
But that was nothing new. The Sabers have displayed an impressive grit, which only grew as the season wore on. The odds were stacked against the Sabers from the beginning with a young team unfamiliar with the fast pace and more aggressive style of the varsity game.
Unfortunately, the Sabers stalled on offense almost from the start, taking only infrequent shots at the basket, which were frequently off the mark. They seldom got a second chance at the hoop as the Falcons dominated the defensive glass, which helped them maintain control.
Although his return to the Sabers’ bench following a two-year absence when he coached at Manistee High, leading the Chippewas to a 20-0 regular season record in his first season and back-to-back district titles and one regional championship, fell short of capturing the same Midas touch, coach Todd Erickson preferred to look at the positive side afterward.
He professed great pride in the progress the Sabers made throughout the season, even if the record (5-14) would not seem to show it.
"I had a ton of fun this year," Erickson said. "(Assistants) Scott (Schmeling) and Phil (Johnson) said the same thing. I told the girls ‘This year, you had to learn so many different things. You all have to be proud of where you are. You all took such big strides.’
"Individually, I went around the room. Sarah (Bialik) didn’t play basketball in the eighth and ninth grade. I said ‘Look at you tonight. You started in a district contest.’ Samantha (Wikosz) hadn’t played since the eighth grade.
"Caitlynn (Davis, a freshman) had never played a game before (because the Sabers did not have a junior varsity team last year, or this). I said, ‘You really elevated for a young lady who never played the game. You participated and got better each time we went out.’ That went for the whole team."
Freshmen guards Jenna Bialik and Nicole Kaminski exhibited an extraordinary chemistry rarely seen in players so young, and their potential would seem to be limitless over the next three years.
Elizabeth Nelson, a junior, grew as a post player as the Sabers’ coaching staff pushed her to excel, working with her in practice in getting to the right spots and doing things correctly to become a viable force for the Sabers inside.
By the end of the season, the coaching staff wanted Nelson to shoot from the elbow because she had developed her shot from there so well that it became her favorite, and she was quite proficient with it.
It’s something Erickson wants to see more of next year.
"Natalie (McLinden, a freshman), we know she can shoot the three," said Erickson. "The beginning of the year she wasn’t shooting out there. Molly (McLinden) is our only senior. We will be back. We’ll make some big strides with summer ball.
"On the season as a whole, we had so many obstacles. Kids gone, kids hurt. Whatever. We were down to six kids at times, and look how well they came back and still played hard. Granted, our scores weren’t the best, but we tried hard.
"What I liked the most about this team is that they are all friends. Some people don’t understand that there’s a lot more about having friends that play together than kids that don’t. I just think that’s a better bond to get better."
Freshman Riley Feliczak was unfortunately lost for the season with a knee injury a few weeks before the districts, and had to sit out the tournament.
But, she’ll be back and is expected to be even stronger after rehab and an off-season regimen to give the Sabers rebounding help and adding another scoring threat inside or out on the perimeter.
Although it was painful at times with the Sabers’ making their share, and then some, of youthful mistakes, Erickson believes the team is heading in the right direction.
In time, the Sabers should be a force with which to be reckoned. And it could come sooner than some think.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News.