Gielczyk: Balanced Attack Puts St. Francis Atop LMC
Sean Finnegan was named the varsity boys basketball coach at Traverse City St. Francis for the 2017-18 season after Hall of Fame basketball coach Keith Haske stepped down following the 2016-17 season, and he’s just beginning to settle into the job.
An All-State player at Bellaire, spent the previous 10 years as an assistant coach with the Traverse City West boys basketball program, but said he had been hoping for a chance to take the helm of the St. Francis boys varsity for some time.
Last year wasn’t only Finnegan’s first year at St. Francis, but his first as a varsity head coach. But he stepped into a good situation with several returning players as he took over for the highly successful Keith Haske, who stepped down at the end of the 2016-17 season.
“The biggest thing right now is energy, effort and focus,” Finnegan said. “If we can execute on those things, we usually see results that are favorable for us. The kids have been playing hard lately.
“We’re scoring when we need to. Our defensive intensity has been probably our staple. The biggest factor there is effort, and bringing that energy. We’ve had it lately.”
And then some.
Before the bitter cold and dangerous road conditions brought the season to a temporary halt, the Gladiators had run off five straight victories to improve their record to 7-2 overall and 6-0 in the Lake Michigan Conference, where they are a step ahead of second place Elk Rapids.
Finnegan said that the coaching staff knew that this year’s senior class was a special group, and there was a strong in-coming junior class behind them so the quick start comes as no surprise.
Still, they were a little apprehensive during the summer when they didn’t have the majority of the seniors available since they were all on the baseball team that had a deep tournament run.
The Gladiators only had the in-coming juniors and a couple of seniors to work with, and Finnegan wasn’t sure how quickly the group could mesh once the bulk of the seniors returned.
“I knew what I had, I just didn’t get to see them together a whole lot,” Finnegan said. “But, we did have some success this summer with the group we had.
“We felt that once we got them all together, if we can find the right pieces to gel we might have something.”
St. Francis has a rich tradition of athletic success, with the Gladiators’ football team going to the MHSAA state semifinals and the baseball team reached the finals the last two years.
All of that brings expectations for every sport, and with basketball falling in the middle season, Finnegan knows that many people are hoping that it’s their time to be in the glare of the spotlight.
Finnegan says it creates a mental toughness single sport athletes wouldn’t experience. To echo from an old cliché, success breeds success. The kids come into each season with goals and expectations that they truly believe in before the coaches even discuss them.
The Gladiators were 16-6 last year in Finnegan’s first season on the bench, losing in the district final to Glen Lake, which went on a run to the finals. It didn’t take away the sting for the Gladiators of falling short of their goals.
St. Francis tweaked its schedule this year in order to be better prepared for the post-season, opening up with Class A Kenowa Hills out of Grand Rapids (which the Gladiators lost, 52-50) and playing Muskegon Heights (a 60-47 win) and Grand Haven (a 40-35 loss) in a Christmas tournament in Grand Haven.
“We actually went out and saw what that next level of competition was, so we know that we’re not that far off, but we’re not there yet,” Finnegan said. “If you have the goal of making a long run in March, I truly believe you have to see the type of style, and play those types of teams.
“It was good for us, and it hopefully it pays dividends down the year here.”
One reason behind the Gladiators’ success is their balance. Although junior Brendan Chouinard, who was on the junior varsity last year, is the team’s leading scorer right now, senior point guard Danny Passinault and off guard Keaton Peck have also had big games.
Anyone can score in double figures on any night, depending on the matchups and how the game flow goes.
The Gladiators run a lot of different offenses, which with the strength of their guard play includes dribble drive. Finnegan says the Gladiators has a European transition style offense.
Defensively, the Gladiators like to pressure and pick teams up full court. The Gladiators are fortunate to have some quick, intense guards that can really get after people.
Artie Dutmers is the fourth guard in the Gladiator’s rotation, while Wade Gerberding and Graham Corcoran that can play any position. They are versatile enough to guard a big on the other team all the way down to their point guard.
“We have maybe one true big, otherwise we’re more long and athletic rather than bulky,” says Finnengan. “We move pretty well, so we like to get up full court and make it uncomfortable for people.”
St. Francis has plenty of challenges ahead.
The Gladiators still have to play second place Elk Rapids (8-3, 5-1 LMC) twice and has a rematch with Harbor Springs (8-4, 4-3 LMC) on the road.
Nothing is going to be handed to them.
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.