Gielczyk: Bellaire Reflects on Historic Campaign
Sometimes, the bounces just go against you.
Maybe it’s not quite that simple, but the bottom line is the Bellaire girls basketball team failed to get its shots to fall whether it was from the perimeters or inside the paint, in a 49-29 loss to Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart last Tuesday night in the MHSAA Class D state quarterfinals in Scottville.
“We just struggled to score, and the Irish came out on fire,” said Bellaire head coach Brad Fischer. “It’s nothing the girls did wrong. We battled, even sometimes we had a hand in their face and it (shot) still went in. We competed.”
But, the Eagles never could get in an offensive flow the entire game after the Irish made a couple of 3-point shots and took a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the way.
Credit the Irish defense for some of the Eagles’ offensive problems, too.
Irish coach Damon Brown said their M.O. all season has been to get after teams defensively. They hang their hat on playing good, solid defense and shutting down the other team’s offense.
Sacred Heart’s length helped as well, which made it especially difficult — if not impossible — for the Eagles to get their passes over the heads of the Irish defenders.
Bellaire never got into a comfort zone, and that disrupted the Eagles’ offensive rhythm.
While the loss stung, it in no way detracts from what the Eagles’ accomplished this season in winning their first ever regional championship, and punching their ticket into the quarters.
The Eagles came into the quarterfinals with a nine-game winning streak, reached the regionals after a three-year drought, and ended the season with a 21-4 record.
All of their losses were against quality competition, including two to Ski Valley Conference champion Gaylord St. Mary, one to Class B Kalkaska and then Sacred Heart.
It was a different kind of season for the Eagles, with four players who were on the team last year and played significant roles choosing, for various reasons, not to come out this year.
Fischer had to call up a couple players from the junior varsity, and wasn’t sure just what the makeup of the team would be like when practice started back in early November.
“We had a good basketball camp, and the kids just seemed to enjoy themselves,” said Fischer. “The team chemistry was just awesome. When you go over the summer stuff, you’re not exactly looking at wins and losses — we did end up going 5-1 — but how the girls get along.
“I thought we could have something special. When the season came round, we found out what the makeup of our team was. There were some girls we tried to slide around into some different slots.
“Each game we were trying to work on stuff to see where girls fit best. Our first true test was Gaylord St. Mary at home, and we lost to them by only two points. It was a good measuring stick for us.”
Although the Kalkaska game got away from the Eagles at the end, Fischer was pleased with how they played against a Class B program that has been a perennial power.
The Eagles slowly, but steadily, built confidence. Their chemistry continued to grow, and they had almost 100 percent attendance at every practice. Just a lot of little things that combined to fill out the big picture.
It all clicked, and came together leading to the Eagles run in the post-season, and senior Lexi Niepoth clearly was the glue that kept the team together when things got tough.
“She’s such a safety net for the girls,” Fischer said. “They feel comfortable that she’ll catch the ball. So, when our guards are feeling pressure, they have no problem throwing it into her.
“We never have girls that are too concerned about their numbers. In fact, sometimes I wish that some of them would have been a little more selfish, and shot the ball more. They just deferred, and look to someone else.
“But, when Lexi’s on the court, she’s just a calming presence. She does a very good job of running and getting to a spot, helping whoever is on the court. That’s what we used her for.”
The girls preferred to look at Niepoth as their primary option, which often meant Fischer was instructing her to hustle all over the court to be in the right spot to take a pass, or provide the help in pressure situations.
Fischer said Niepoth is an underrated passer, because that part of her game goes pretty much unnoticed.
“We didn’t always shoot a lot from the outside, or shoot a high percentage, but man when that ball went inside, and she reversed pivot out, she could just pass her teammate a perfect shot,” Fischer said. “That’s what we talk about, pass your teammate a shot.
“Have your hands up ready to go, and Lexi would hit that pocket so the girls could just catch, step and drive in one motion. So, even when Lexi wasn’t scoring, setting the screen or whatever, she could collapse the defense and kick it out.”
Fischer said it made everyone’s life so much easier.
Bellaire had a lot of options at guard, and Fischer often felt like a kid in a candy store with so many players capable of handling the ball in Keagan Fischer, Kennan Dawson and junior varsity call up Libby Derrer. Tally Goodwin was a spot up shooter, and the Eagles’ main 3-point threat.
“We just kind of mixed and matched,” added Fischer. “We wanted to get girls a little more comfortable with being able to handle the ball. Some games are suited for all.
“But, our guard play was pretty strong with Keagan and Kennan out there leading us. They are just really strong with the basketball, and make really good decisions. They are undersized guards, so they have to battle that. But, just their ball handling was exceptional this year.”
Fischer noted the community support for the team.
“I can’t say enough about that,” the coach said. “The community and school. The girls felt really good about themselves, as they should. So, we’re hopefully going to ride that momentum next year.”
The Eagles are losing a good chunk of the team to graduation in seniors Niepoth, Dawson, Goodwin and Malorie Meeker who wrote a new chapter in the program’s history.
Fischer pulled some players up from the junior varsity program for the Eagles’ post-season run, and some of them got significant playing time because they felt comfortable with the situation.
It gives Fischer a good core to work with next season. Six girls recently tried out for an AAU team, and five made the squad.
“They’ve got the basketball bug, and they’re a dedicated group,” Fischer said. “They’re smart (the team grade point average was 3.8 this year). We’re losing a lot of size, but I think we’re going to be more balanced next year.
“Sometimes, we deferred a little too much to Lexi. Which is easy to do when you have a talent like her. But I think we’ll be a little tougher to guard next year.
“I think we’ll be deeper. We’re still looking to play our style, have some fun and get after it. But, I think they’re going to be real excited about next year, if everything goes to plan.”
Bellaire has had a taste of the bigger stage, and the girls coming back are going to be hungry for more.
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. Gielczyk can be reached at email@example.com for story ideas.