Gielczyk: Veterans Have Big Rapids Girls Rolling
It was only natural that there would be high expectations for the Big Rapids girls basketball team this season with the Cardinals returning two players who entered their fourth year as starters, and experience among the support players.
Alexis Lyman and Aliza Hengesbach led a strong group of fellow veterans in senior Grace White and juniors Kaitlyn Ray and Leah Morningstar that knew it had the potential for greatness if they only played up to it.
So far, the Cardinals have delivered on their pre-season promise, winning a third straight Central State Activities Association-Gold Division title. The Cardinals earned a share of the league a year ago when they finished 16-5, but won it outright this year with a 13-1 conference mark.
They are in the midst of chasing a Class B district championship, and took the first step on the path toward reaching that goal with a win over Reed City, 47-31, on the Coyotes court in the Class D District 62 Monday night.
It gave the Cardinals a 3-0 season sweep of Reed City this season.
Big Rapids lost to the Coyotes, 48-41 in the district semifinals last year after going 2-0 against them during the regular season.
Lyman is the Cardinals’ floor general, running the offense from the point guard position. Although a streaky shooter according to Big Rapids coach Jessica Haist, she can light it up if she gets on a roll and she likes to launch the 3-pointers from the perimeter.
Hengesbach, on the other hand, specializes in defense and frequently ties the Cardinals’ opponents in knots with her smothering pressure. But she is quite capable of capitalizing on the turnovers she creates with fast-break points.
She’s also an All-State cross country and track athlete, which gives her the added threat of being able to scoop up one of her teammate’s defensive deflections or grab a lead pass after a steal to race to the other end of the court for a lay-up.
It’s helped her emerge as the team’s second leading scorer this season.
Although she doesn’t have impressive height at about 5-foot-11, White typically produces a double-double in points and rebounds most games. She’s very strong and extremely hard to stop once she penetrates the paint.
The Cardinals have excellent offensive balance with four girls averaging in double figures, making them a nightmare to defend.
"It’s a balanced team effort, and there isn’t just one that can be shut down," Haist said. "Somebody else can step up. It’s kind of what we’ve done all season. Our defense triggers our offense. There are nights when we have to slow it down, depending on who were playing.
"We played Central Montcalm earlier this year. They’re a real hot shooting team, so we wanted to make it difficult for them to get hot. We didn’t want to give them any easy buckets, so we didn’t press them and we really packed it in, stayed nice and tight inside the arc.
"That was hard for us, because we’re not used to it. But, sometimes you’ve got to do it. We like to press, we like to trap, we like to run and cause chaos and score off of it at the other end. We can slow it down if we have to. But, it’s a lot more fun not to."
One of the Cardinals’ biggest strengths is their ability to pick up on changes very quickly and adjust on the fly.
In addition to White, the Cardinals have a transfer from Big Rapids Crossroads Academy, Jayla Strickland who gives them height in the front court at 6-foot-2. She had to sit out the first semester, but made an immediate impact on the boards when she finally got on the court.
Haist says White and Strickland pose an intimidating inside presence and are hard to box out. Ray fills a utility role with the Cardinals, able to play a couple of different positions and although she’s only about 5-foot-8, brings down between seven and 10 rebounds a game.
Strickland immediately became a starter after she was eligible to play, and the Cardinals’ ability to accept her into the fold was a big key in their meshing as a unit.
They understood she could help them win, and that was the bottom line.
A little of the pressure on Strickland was relieved when the Cardinals won a couple of big games before she was eligible.
Haist was able to tell the team that the Cardinals were good without her. She wasn’t coming to save the team, but to help them, make them stronger and make them deeper.
Strickland made the adjustment easier because she’s a good teammate and has clicked well with her new teammates.
And she wants to win.
"Because I’ve got three or four kids that really like the floor, they need to understand, depending on the night, there should be someone else’s strength that should be highlighted a little bit," added Haist.
"We need to take advantage of what the defense is giving us. That (accepting Strickland) really showed that the girls have bought into that. They have accepted that each one of them has the ability to do different things, and on different nights somebody else has to step up."
It’s all about the team.
The Cardinals (17-4) play Cadillac in the semifinals at Reed City Wednesday at 7 p.m.
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.