Gielczyk: Tight-Knit Pellston Sitting Atop Ski Valley
Pellston was not only looking for some revenge when the Hornets visited Mancelona for a Ski Valley Conference boys basketball game Tuesday night, but also to bounce back from an 81-65 loss to defending league champion Johannesburg-Lewiston in their last game back on Jan. 29 which snapped a seven-game winning streak.
The Hornets, ranked No. 8 in Division 4, were idle for two weeks, like everyone else in northern Michigan, because of the so-called polar vortex that swept the state bringing with it frigid temperatures and plenty of snow, and coach Larry Cassidy might have reasonably been concerned with how his team would respond after the layoff.
But the Hornets were ready and focused, no doubt motivated by the memory of their last meeting with the Ironmen which ended in a narrow 67-65 loss that ended Pellston’s six-game winning streak to open the season.
Pellston held the Ironmen to just 22 points in the first half and built a convincing 20-point lead, 42-22 at the break. The Hornets cruised the rest of the way, keeping the pedal to the metal and never let off the gas.
Mancelona closed to within 13 points of the Hornets in the third quarter, but would get no closer as Pellston slammed the door shut in the Ironmen’s faces and boosted its lead back to 19, 64-45 going into the fourth quarter.
The Hornets improved to 14-2 overall and kept their hold on first place in the Ski Valley with a 10-2 mark. Johannesburg-Lewiston is in second place with an 8-3 record, 10-5 overall, while Mancelona third with a 9-4 league mark and 12-5 overall.
Pellston had everyone return from last year’s 15-8 squad that went 9-7 in the league, and that experience is showing now. The Hornets are blessed with a solid senior class that gives them the leadership so necessary to succeed.
“When I took over six years ago I knew they were coming,” said Cassidy. “I knew this group was going to be a good group of kids. So, I think it’s just a culmination of these kids working so hard but playing together for so many games in the summer time.
“Even with all that being said, they still have to put in the work. They have to put in the time in the off-season and in the weight room, and putting up shots, and then when you hit that grind of a basketball season to just keep persevering and working every day. These kids do that.”
Tanner Byard, who put up 31 points in the win over Mancelona, and Blake Cassidy, the coach’s son, are the leaders on the team both on and off the court.
Colin Robbins played on the varsity as a sophomore last year and has stepped up his game this season, and Cheboygan transfer senior Zavin Goodrich has been a help as well.
“I have come to believe in all these years of coaching that the maturity level of your kids in terms of basketball and just physicality is so important,” coach Cassidy said. “Sometimes kids mature a little bit later. I think we’re seeing some kids here who have really embraced that role and really done a great job with it.”
Byard is averaging about 26.7 points per game to lead the Hornets with Cassidy scoring at around a 22.3 points a game clip. Goodrich contributes about eight points a game, and Kaleb Rybinski has a 6.8 average.
While it might be Byard and Cassidy scoring the majority of the Hornets’ points in a game, they and the rest of the team understand it’s a team game and everyone has to do their part for the team to succeed, whether it’s as a starter or contributing off the bench.
The coach says it’s a tight knit group that hangs out together outside of the team structure and has formed a very tangible bond.
Pellston might be defined by its 3-point shooting. Most games the Hornets put up from nine to 11 shots from beyond the arc. They also try to get out in transition and run. Pellston is averaging in the high 70s this season.
“We’ve really started to pride ourselves this year on defense,” coach Cassidy continued. “We’ve always been a great shooting team. We shot the ball really well last year, and we’re shooting well this season.
“The challenge I gave the kids at the beginning of the season was ‘If we want to make a run, and if you want to be one of the elite teams in the state, you’ve got to figure out how to play defense.’
“I wasn’t sure if we could, but they’ve surprised me. Just like last night, we went down to Mancelona in a big game. They got us our first loss early in the season, and we held them to 22 points in the first half and we’re up 20.
“When we get those defensive stops, and we can get out and we can get some easy layups, that opens up the outside for our three-point shooting.”
Pellston doesn’t have a lot of height. Blake Cassidy is probably the tallest player at 6-foot-4 or 6-5, and everyone else is 6-1 to 6-foot. But the Hornets rebound pretty well because they can jump.
One of the Hornets’ leading rebounders is Rybinski, who is only about 6-foot, but he understands how to rebound and position. But the Hornets don’t really have a big they go to.
The Hornets have more of a four-guard set around one guy in the middle and they just try to get to the rim. When defenses collapse on them, they just start bombing from 3-point land.
“I think the Ski Valley gives teams like us great competition throughout the conference so when we get into tournament play we’ve had just a dogfight,” Cassidy said.
“Any coach will say ‘I want the fight in the regular season so we’re well prepared for the tournament run,’ and that’s what I’ve said for years. We’re certainly hoping that comes true this year.”
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.