By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Pewamo-Westphalia always seems to be in the mix. The Pirates haven’t had a losing record since 1998-99, the last season before coach Luke Pohl returned to the program after two years away and led 19 straight winners.
Maybe last year’s seniors, coming off an 18-6 finish, wanted to provide their replacements with a little bit of additional motivation.
“Our seniors last year, pretty much all of our starters, were saying we’re not going to be good this year,” P-W senior Andre Smith said. “That we were actually going to be worse. That motivated us to all put in work over the offseason and get better.
“We were putting in a lot of work. But (to get) this far? I didn’t really think that much. But we’re here and we put in that much work, and it’s paid off.”
For the third time in its history, P-W has earned an opportunity to play for its first championship. The Pirates advanced to Saturday with a 60-45 Division 3 Semifinal win over Erie-Mason on Thursday at the Breslin Center.
P-W (27-0) will meet also-unbeaten Iron Mountain in the 4:30 p.m. championship game. It will be the program’s third appearance in the Final – the Pirates finished Class C runners-up in 1993 and 2014.
After another long football season – P-W finished 11-1 and made the Division 7 Regional Finals – a mostly new crew of basketball contributors worked to get up to speed before an opening night that also was a week earlier than usual this season.
To be honest, P-W may not have been even the favorite in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference – which produced three District champions this winter. But the Pirates downed favorite Dansville by 18 in their second game of the season, and Smith and his teammates knew then they might be on to something special – even if Pohl as well didn’t really expect to still be playing on the season’s last day.
“You just don’t know. You only have two starters back, but we’ve just jelled,” Pohl said. “We’ve done a lot of things well defensively, made it hard for offensive teams. We have great length, and a lot of guys have put in extra time. Andre took a huge jump, every guy took a huge jump. (So) I never dreamed that.”
It’s also likely no one expected the Pirates to jump out to a 15-0 start Thursday. But that wasn’t enough to count out Erie-Mason and particularly junior guard Joe Liedel.
The Eagles pulled all the way back to within a point at 23-22 with 2:20 to go in the first half as Liedel – who averaged 28.6 points per game this season – scored 14 of his game-high 31 during the comeback.
Another Liedel basket with 1:27 to play in the third quarter kept Erie-Mason only three points behind. But Smith pushed the margin back to nine with the first basket of the fourth, and the Eagles made only 3-of-16 shots from the floor over the final period as P-W pulled away.
“A lot of times, those (big early leads) come back to bite you,” Pohl said. “I’ve seen it happen too many times; a team lets up little bit, starts to feel the pressure as the other team is coming back. … The guys persevered. They battled through this all year long, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way we ended up finishing.”
Junior forward Aaron Bearss finished with a team-high 16 points, nine rebounds and four blocks for P-W, and Smith had 14 points and nine rebounds. Senior forward Nathan Wirth grabbed nine rebounds as well as the Pirates won the boards 46-32.
Liedel had six rebounds and three assists to go with his 31 points, and senior center John Sweeney grabbed eight rebounds for Erie-Mason.
“My biggest thing is to keep getting better this offseason. I just want to keep taking everything we’ve done this year and be back here next year and be even better,” Liedel said.
Erie-Mason (23-3) made it to this final week by winning its first Regional title since 1973, one of many achievements as eighth-year coach Kevin Skaggs has built the program.
Two of his first three teams finished with sub-.500 records, but his last five all have been winners, with this one also earning the first league title of his tenure.
P-W was model of consistency that Skaggs, who came from the college ranks, used as something of a “benchmark” for the Erie-Mason program.
“When we got to Mason eight years ago, they had had only eight or nine winning seasons in 50 years of basketball,” Skaggs said. “I think this has been a continuous building project to get to this stage. It was not unexpected to get here. But what you can’t reproduce is the experiences that Pewamo has enjoyed. Those kids have watched the guys, when they were in elementary school, perform on this stage or at least get to the Regional Finals.
“Our guys are still in the process of they’ve created history. … They are creating the same things that the early teams that Luke coached during the late 90s and early 2000s (created).”
PHOTOS: (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia’s Hunter Hengesbach (10) sets up the offense as Erie-Mason’s Joe Liedel defends. (Middle) Liedel gets a shot up over the Pirates’ Collin Trierweiler.
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.
MHSAA.com's weekly “Breslin Bound” previews and reviews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 college savings programs (MET/MESP), as well as scholarship and grant programs that help make college Accessible, Affordable and Attainable for you. Connect with MI Student Aid at www.michigan.gov/mistudentaid and find more information on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.
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.)