EAST LANSING – After falling in the first week of the MHSAA tournament last season, there was no way Traverse City St. Francis was going to look ahead to the end of March this winter.
But riding the bus to Breslin Center on Thursday, the reality of this weekend hit senior Sean Sheldon.
The Gladiators were 32 minutes from reaching their first MHSAA boys basketball Final. And now, they’re only 32 more from winning their first championship.
St. Francis earned that opportunity with 63-54 win over No. 8 Shelby in the second Class C Semifinal. The Gladiators will face Flint Beecher in the noon championship game Saturday.
“Last year, we got out of tournament pretty early. It was a big disappointment for us,” Sheldon said. “We looked ahead a little bit, kinda at what we could do. … Now we’re in the Finals, and now 32 minutes from holding up the first ever state title for our school.”
This was St. Francis’ third Semifinal appearance. The Gladiators (25-2) had never before advanced, losing in their last appearance, in 2006, by 29 points to Saginaw Buena Vista.
St. Francis had high hopes last season. But Elk Rapids ended those abruptly in the District Final.
This time, the Gladiators beat all three of their District opponents by at least 31 points, and two more after that by at least 11 before coming up against Shelby – which was making its first Semifinal appearance since 1972, when Tigers’ longtime coach Rick Zoulek was in middle school.
“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking that was a goal of mine,” said Shelby’s David Beckman, Jr., who with Jeremiah James was a four-year varsity player. “It just happened to be the 50-year anniversary, and we actually made that happen. We had 13 guys make that happen.”
And they nearly advanced to their first Final since that same season.
No matter how much St. Francis surged, Shelby hung around – and took a 45-44 lead with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. The Gladiators held just a one-point lead with 5:58 to play.
“You could feel the momentum coming back our way, and we had a few breaks go against us. A couple mistakes. We missed a couple of shots, a turnover here and there,” Zoulek said. “It was really close. It makes you realize how close you really are to being in that final game. Just a couple of plays.”
Some of them came from Sheldon, who scored six of his 16 points over the final six minutes. The Tigers also made just 4 of 11 shots during that time and had three turnovers. They did well breaking St. Francis’ fullcourt press, but struggled to finish at the other end.
Beckman finished with 17 points and James had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Shelby (24-3).
Three others scored in double figures for St. Francis – senior guard Devin Sheehy led with 18 points (and seven assists), while senior center Michael Jenkins added 14 points and sophomore guard Byron Bullough had 11. Sheldon, who has signed with William & Mary, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
While the basketball championship game is new ground for St. Francis, winning at this level is not—the Gladiators have won six MHSAA football championships over the last 21 seasons.
It’s definitely a football school by reputation. And that success was a big reason basketball coach Keith Haske took the hoops job before 2010-11 after leading multiple Charlevoix teams to Breslin.
“One of the reasons I was excited about going there was because of football. The kids have the mentality they can be state champions,” Haske said. “When I walked in the first day of practice, I had a group of kids who said that because of football, we can be state champs here. That’s a huge factor, and I don’t think people realize that. Because not only do that believe that, but they put the work into it.”
PHOTO: Traverse City St. Francis' Sean Sheldon had 16 points and 12 rebounds in Thursday's Semifinal win. (Photo courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click. by Christine McCallister.)