Gielczyk: Manistee CC Learning From District Final Loss
“Oh, I think I’m still in Custer to be honest with you,” Manistee Catholic boys basketball coach Mike Feliczak said when reached by phone a day after the Sabers saw their season come to an end with a 48-39 loss to Walkerville in an MHSAA Division 4 district championship game at Mason County Eastern last Friday night.
The two are rivals in the Western Michigan D League, and the Wildcats had won both of the regular season meetings between the two teams. Both were close games. The first was 45-42 in Manistee, while the Wildcats hung on for a 52-48 decision at home.
“The day after the season (ends) is always hard,” Feliczak added. “It was as a kid, and it’s no different as a coach. But, what are you going to do? You re-live it and re-think it so much it beats you up.
“We matched up good, we just came up short,” said Feliczak. “It’s just the way it goes. You can always think you could do things differently, but that’s just hindsight. We’ll move on here quick.”
Early on it appeared the third time would be the charm for the Sabers as they sprinted out to a 6-0 lead, triggering a ear-splitting din from their fans in the packed gymnasium.
But after leading by four, 10-6, at the end of the first quarter things began to go awry for the Sabers. The Sabers still had a four-point lead, 14-10 in the second quarter when the Wildcats scored seven unanswered points before junior Kyle Mikolajczak’s basket left the Sabers trailing by one, 17-16 at the half.
Walkerville increased its lead to eight, 34-26 at the end of three quarters. The Sabers cut the Wildcats’ lead to four, 39-35 with 5:16 remaining in the fourth quarter when Mikolajczak sank back-to-back 3-point baskets.
The Sabers, though, couldn’t manage to get any closer and finished the season with a 14-7 record. Walkerville went on to win its first district title since 2002, and entered this week’s regional tournament with a 16-5 mark.
“As I look back on the season, for instance Big Rapids Crossroads won their district, they’re 21-1 and the one loss came from Manistee Catholic,” Feliczak reflected. “We wanted to win the league, we finished in second. We wanted to win a district, and we lost the district final.
“Although we didn’t meet our goals, we were certainly there to attain them, which is all you can ask from the kids. We got there, we just didn’t get over the edge. We had a tremendous group of seniors, great leaders. Just good teammates, good kids, good people.”
John Slivka, one of those seniors and a regular starter, was lost for the last three weeks of the season with a foot injury and that definitely hurt the Sabers.
Feliczak said Slivka was a huge part of the team in terms of leadership.
“He was a coach on the floor,” added Feliczak. “I don’t think people understand what we really missed when we lost him. We tried a few different lineups.
“Jalen Tabaczka took his spot, and filled in well. But he had to sit out a semester because of the transfer. With a full season under his belt, I think he’ll get better.”
The other seniors on this year’s Sabers’ team were guard Brayden Perkins, Nolan Fortier, Preston Picardat, Eric Stickney and Justen Kuenzer.
A pair of sophomores, Blake Johnson and Mateo Barnett, saw extensive minutes down the stretch for the Sabers and at times fit in and performed really well.
Sometimes, though, they seemed to be overwhelmed by the moment. But Feliczak is confident they’ll be better off for the experience in the next two years.
The Sabers will be bringing back a solid core, including Mikolajczak who led the team in scoring and rebounding (19 points and 10 rebounds per game this season).
“I expect him to put up even better numbers his senior year,” Feliczak said. “He’s putting these numbers up against double teams constantly, triple teams, teams collapsing on him.
“We relied on him so much. As I sit and think back on the season, maybe we relied on him too much. But, when you’ve got a work horse and a scorer, you’ve got to use him. We used him really well, I thought.
“Maybe we placed too much pressure on him, but he does well. One more year under the belt, a good summer for him and I think the sky’s the limit for that kid. It’s going to be an exciting senior season for him.”
Despite his size, Mikolajczak displayed a nice touch from outside. In the district championship game he sank four jumpers from beyond the 3-point line.
He can burn teams from the perimeter, as well as be a huge presence inside with his size and strength. He frequently scored off his own missed shots with his toughness on the offensive glass.
Johnson can bring defenses out with his perimeter shooting, while Barnett is more of a driver, slasher type. It gives the Sabers a nice combination that should prove difficult to defend.
“I think our dynamic next year will be a little more run and gun, with more outside shooting,” Feliczak said. “I think it’s going to open things up for Kyle if we can hit more three balls.
“Jalen had a tough night shooting (in the district final), but he’s a good shooter. I’ve seen him all year shooting a nice jump shot in practice. So, who knows?
“If we lacked anything this year, it was consistent outside jump shooting and that just played into other teams hands, the way they were defending Kyle. They were able to collapse on him. It’s something we have to get better at.”
The makeup of the team next year is expected to solve that problem, and the Sabers might just have the most experienced team in the conference next year.
Walkerville, for instance, started five seniors in the district final.
“Our motto all year has been, ‘It’s we, it’s not me,'” Feliczak said. “It was just a great team. Not a lot of individual stuff, not a lot of egos. We were all together as one. It was one of my most enjoyable years (coaching).”
Feliczak is hoping next year brings more of the same, except with a deeper tournament run.
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.