Gielczyk: Crossroads Continues Impressive Season with League Title
Every team has as its goal at the start of the season winning a conference and district title.
Anything after that is gravy.
The Big Rapids Crossroads Academy boys basketball team checked the first one on the list Tuesday night with a 55-44 victory over Bear Lake in Big Rapids.
It gave the Cougars their first outright Western Michigan D League championship since 2011, and also extended their winning streak to 16 straight games.
Crossroads improved to 18-1 overall and 16-1 in the WMD. Manistee Catholic finished second in the league with a 12-4 mark, while Walkerville was third at 11-5.
Heading into the home stretch Cougars coach Julian Castillo cautioned his team not to get caught in the trap of looking ahead past the opponent in front of it for fear of stumbling.
Another distraction could have been getting overly concerned about what Manistee Catholic and Walkerville were doing. They couldn’t control that.
Case in point, Tuesday night’s game at home against Bear Lake. No need for worry. The Cougars remained focused, and determined to complete the first part of their mission.
The Cougars led by just two points late in the first quarter against Bear Lake before Britton Angell, an All-State candidate, swished a jumper in the waning seconds to stretch it to 15-11 at the end of one.
Bear Lake kept the game close throughout the first half with its 3-point shooting which allowed the Lakers to keep from getting overrun by the Cougars up-tempo offense.
Giving the Lakers a taste of their own medicine, the Cougars buried back-to-back 3-pointers of their own from Cody Carlson and Jackson Wickes plus a fast break layup from Ethan Davis to open up a 40-32 lead midway through the third quarter. Big Rapids led, 44-39 after going into the fourth quarter.
Without five minutes to play in the game the Cougars had a 47-41 lead and Castillo decided to slow the game down and try to maintain possession for long stretches, forcing the Lakers into fouling.
The strategy worked, and the Lakers would score just three points the rest of the way while the Cougars paraded to the free throw line and made their attempts count.
Angell finished with 20 points to lead the Cougars in scoring, while Wickes chipped in with 12 and Davis added nine. Isaac Slomp and Carlson each scored six.
“It’s all the boys,” Castillo said. “They’re the reason we’ve been so successful this year. Their energy, effort, coachability and understanding that you have to play for four quarters.
“We still have moments and lapses, but for the most part they understand that offense goes and comes but it’s the defense and effort that’s going to win you games more often than not.”
Big Rapids came into the season with six players returning from last year, including three starters.
Castillo wasn’t hired until August and didn’t have an opportunity to work with the team throughout the summer, and only got to see his team during open gyms.
He wasn’t permitted by MHSAA rules to actually do any coaching, but he did get an idea of what kind of team he might have as he sat in a chair and watched the players go at it.
What he saw as a bunch of kids who could get up and down the court with a lot of energy.
That’s the kind of offense the Cougars play, too. Run and gun.
“Our slogan is ‘All gas, no brakes,'” Castillo added. “That’s offensively and defensively. I met with the kids before the season, and I’m all about identity. What do you want to be known for? When you’re done with this game what do you want everyone to know about you guys when you leave, good or bad? What did you stand for?
“They all said ‘We want to be known as having effort going both ways, offense and defense. We’re not saving anything. And let the chips fall where they may.'”
Castillo emphasizes taking a lunch pail mentality. He even has an old metal lunch pail from the late 1960s or early ’70s his father might have carried to work with him and has the kids touch it every day before they start practice.
It signifies that it’s time to go to work.
Angell, Carlson, Wickes and Davis all exemplify that in how they approach the game.
Despite being known as a scorer, Angell has learned that he needs to get his teammates involved if the Cougars are going to be successful and has become a facilitator as well.
“They’re moving the ball around and understanding that concept that basketball is not one person, it’s got to be a team,” Castillo added. “On defense you’ve got to communicate and understand your rotations.
“You’ve got to understand what your responsibility is, and understand the philosophy of each defense that we put in. Each press has system it’s supposed to do.
“Don’t do anything you’re not supposed to. Do your job and execute your assignment and everything else will take care of itself.”
Castillo feels that the league competition has helped the Cougars prepare for the intensity of the post-season tournament.
“Brethren is tough, Catholic, Bear Lake, Walkerville… all those are going to give you their best shot every night,” the coach continued. “You’ve got to be prepared for that.
“I hope the kids are prepared. Sometimes when we look up at the scoreboard and we’re up by 20 we sometimes get sloppy. I try to teach them that you can’t look at the scoreboard, you can’t look at the opponent.
“You’ve got to play hard and take care of the ball every time because that’s the mindset when you get into the districts. You’re one and done. There’s no next week. You have a break down one night, you’re done.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for story ideas.