Gielczyk: Pentwater Concludes Impressive Year
Coach Joe Gorton knew this could be a special season for the Pentwater girls basketball team from the moment he gathered the Falcons together in the gym over the summer.
It just took a little time for the team to become familiar with its new coach, and his system, after he took over when Jeff McDonough stepped down at the end of 2016-17.
Once things came together, however, the Falcons quickly took off and swooped to their first Western Michigan D League title since 2006, and just the second in school history.
The boys junior varsity coach for two years before throwing his hat in the ring for the girls varsity job, and Gorton soon made sweeping changes in the way he wanted Pentwater to play.
“I think the first couple of weeks was an adjustment in terms of them learning a whole new system,” Gorton said. “Them learning my plays, my expectations.
“Having had Jeff for five years, I think it just took us a little while to gel. But, I think by the end of the year we were rolling pretty good.”
Pentwater ran off a seven-game winning streak before seeing it end with a close 42-39 loss at Brethren on Feb. 19 in a makeup game from one weathered out on Jan. 23.
While it ended the Falcons chances of winning the title outright, they didn’t let the disappointment linger and bounced back with a 61-22 victory at Big Rapids Crossroads Academy to clinch a share of the crown with Bear Lake as both teams finished with a 12-2 mark.
That mission accomplished, Pentwater focused in on the Class D district tournament, and after wins against Manistee Catholic (65-39) and Mason County Eastern (62-50), the Falcons faced Onekama in the championship game.
It was a chance to win their first district title in 12 years as well, but too many missed opportunities foiled the Falcons and the Portagers pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 44-36 win.
Pentwater ended the season with a 16-7 record.
“I knew there were going to be some bumps along the road, but I just knew right from the beginning what I had in that gym,” said Gorton. “I knew the talent that I had, and I knew that with the effort and the attitude they were giving me that we were going to have a chance.
“It had to be a transfer from a reliance on one or two kids, to a type of play where they were always looking for the open player, rather than a specific player.
“That’s just a mindset that they’ve had to have in years past, based on the makeup of the team. So, that’s kind of what they were used to. I told them that the difference between a 10-win and a 16-win team is going to be ‘can you help the ball find the basket? Can you help that next pass long find the person that’s open. All five of you be scorers on the floor.’ That was our goal, and that was the piece that took the longest to figure out.”
Whether it was their turn to shoot, whether they were passing to the next person, they needed to understand in Gorton’s system that all five of them were capable of doing something on the floor.
On any given night, Pentwater had five girls capable of scoring 10 to 15 points.
The Falcons also had excellent guard play.
Sophomore guard Terra Cluchey had surgery on her ankle over the summer, and Gorton thought she might have had a stress fracture while playing volleyball in the fall.
At any rate, she missed the first two or three weeks of practice, although she made everyone but sat on the sidelines.
“She was a week or so behind the other girls in terms of getting ready for the season,” Gorton said. “It took a while to get up to speed, and really find her confidence
“Once she started going, we started going.”
Junior point guard Julia Hall was the facilitator, using her speed and quickness to penetrate and either take the ball to the hole, or kick it back out to the perimeter players.
Senior forward Taylor Wilkinson understood her role going in, and that there would be a lot put on her shoulders.
But, instead of balking at the idea, she embraced the responsibility.
Although the Falcons needed 10 to 15 points a night from her, Wilkinson’s other challenge was to hit the boards hard for rebounds, and also become more of a facilitator and a defensive presence.
Wilkinson missed part of last season after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), filled the stat sheet across the board, averaging a double-double along the way.
She led the team in rebounds (10.1 per game), scoring (12.4) and assists (3.1), while finishing second in steals (3.2) to Hall (3.4).
Pentwater expects to be a league contender next season as well, with four starters returning, including freshman phenom Jhordan Miller-Rowe, who proved her resiliency in the district final against Onekama.
Despite chipping a tooth and injurying her hip, Miller-Rowe would not sit on the bench for long and returned to the game after taking only brief moments off to recuperate.
“Getting her in those games, and letting her understand the speed and the tenacity of the varsity game, I think, was really important,” Gorton said. “She got to prep herself for next year and know what to expect.
“I still think she was still not quite ready for that kind of intensity, but as the year went on she slowly rolled into form. Yeah, we’re losing Taylor, and that hurts a lot.
“But, the other four starters will still be here. Jhordan is going to be a year better, my eighth grader, Mikaylyn Kenney, is going to be a year better. I’m really excited to see what we can do.”
Wilkinson’s absence is going to change the dynamic for the Falcons.
The Falcons will have to get used to not having Wilkinson to lean on when times get tough. Wilkinson always took the Falcons home. Now, they’re going to have take that ownership themselves.
Sharing the league left a bitter taste for the Falcons. It was their goal to win it outright. Coming close to winning a district title also had the Falcons feeling they left something on the table.
Pentwater should go into next season with a continued feeling that they still have something to prove.
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.