GRAND RAPIDS – The Battle Creek Pennfield boys basketball team doesn’t mind playing the underdog role.
In fact, the Panthers have to come expect it throughout the MHSAA Tournament.
They proved the doubters wrong yet again with a 62-52 win over Bridgeport in Thursday’s second Division 2 Semifinal at Van Andel Arena.
Pennfield jumped out to a double-digit lead and never looked back in securing the program’s first Finals berth.
The Panthers (21-2) will face unbeaten Grand Rapids Catholic Central (19-0) on Saturday at Breslin Center.
“I think we’re surprising a lot of people,” said Pennfield senior Ryne Peterson, who recorded 12 points and six rebounds.
“We’ve been seeing the picks, and we will embrace the underdog role. It’s nothing new to us. We were supposed to lose to Williamston, we were supposed to lose to (Romulus) Summit and we were supposed to lose to Bridgeport, so we’re used to it.”
Pennfield’s storybook season added another chapter as the Panthers never trailed after building a 13-3 lead in the first quarter.
Last week they won their first Regional since 1972, and hadn’t played in a Semifinal before Thursday.
“This is a group that started playing together in third grade, and I don’t think they would’ve thought we would get where we are tonight,” Pennfield coach Nate Burns said. “It was a dream, and for it to come to realization that Battle Creek Pennfield is going to play for a state championship on Saturday ... these guys are amazing.”
A strong start has been a staple of this team, and it was key in the win as the Panthers controlled the second quarter as well en route to a 33-17 halftime edge.
“We’ve been able to get off to good starts all year, and that’s been one of our strong suits,” Burns said. “The guys show up ready to play, and tonight we did it again. We wanted to put our foot on the pedal, but we knew Bridgeport was going to come back and fight and compete and they did. Our guys' composure the last couple games has been phenomenal, and we are a veteran group.”
The Bearcats, appearing in their first Semifinal since 2009, tried to battle back, and cut the deficit to six points (37-31) late in the third quarter after Remaureon Arthur’s 3-pointer.
It was as close as Bridgeport would get, though, as it never recovered from missing its first 10 shots from the field.
“I think nerves got the best of them at the beginning, but then we settled down and started playing,” Bearcats coach Kevin Marshall Sr. said. “We haven’t had to come back from that kind of deficit, and it was something we couldn’t overcome.
“We overcame a lot of adversity just to be here today, and it hurts, but I'm still proud of my kids. We just fell short today.”
Pennfield junior guard Luke Davis led the way with 25 points and was 10 of 13 from the free throw line. Junior Aiden Burns knocked down three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points.
The Panthers returned their top eight, including all five starters, from a year ago.
“We won a District championship last year and didn’t get a chance to finish, obviously,” Davis said. “We all had a goal to get here, and we just worked hard every day. Now we’re here.”
Pennfield held the Bearcats at bay by converting 14 of 18 free throws in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers are looking forward to the challenge of playing a talented Cougars squad.
“CC is a phenomenal program,” Burns said. “We know it's a big mountain to climb. We’ve taken a lot of steps to get to the top of that mountain so far, and we know we have one big hurdle to go on Saturday. These guys will be ready.”
Arthur finished with a team-high 18 points for Bridgeport (17-3), while Omarion Wilkins added 11 points and 14 rebounds.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pennfield's Luke Davis gets around the Bridgeport defense and scoops a shot during Thursday's Division 2 Semifinal. (Middle) Zalyn Martin (40) is among Bearcats to get a hand up as Davis looks to score. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
A review of Harbor Light Christian’s boys basketball rosters over the last couple of decades would show a lot of familiar names.
That would be especially true of the coaching slots.
Or are the players now coaches?
The coaches’ names are extremely familiar, and nothing much has changed – except some of the former players are now coaches, and the head coaches have returned to assist the program.
Today, the head coach is Jason Roussin. He’s in his 12th season at the helm of the Swordsmen. Jeff Jakeway, who was the head coach during Roussin’s junior and senior seasons at Harbor Light, is back on the Swordsmen’s staff as an assistant coach. Roussin is also assisted by long-time coach William Henagan and previous head coach Clark Hewitt.
Hewitt also serves as the Harbor Light junior varsity coach. The JV squad went 19-1 this season and 18-2 the year before.
“In 38 years, really there’s been three consistent coaches and then Pat Collins who had done one year when the program started, and now we’re all back on the sidelines working together,” Roussin said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
The facilities Collins, Hewitt and Jakeway coached in are nothing like the Swordsmen have today – the newly-built Solid Rock Center in Harbor Springs. In fact, they used to play on a cement floor. A year ago, the Swordsmen played their first game in their new home.
A walk around the facility, five years in the making, provides the feeling of more like a small college program’s setup. Along with the new gym, the Solid Rock Center was equipped with a cafe and concession area, locker rooms, a film lounge and hangout area for the players, an upper-level full track around the gym, and three classrooms for art, music, science and more.
Jakeway served as project manager on the building — fully funded and debt-free through community support. He was the head coach of the Harbor Light girls basketball team when the facility opened.
Harbor Light’s boys suffered a 76-74 loss to hot-shooting Pellston in the facility’s first game Jan. 20, 2023, but haven’t been doing much losing since. The Swordsmen started this season 2-2, and after a heart-breaking loss to Traverse City Christian on Dec. 8 went on to share the Northern Lights Conference title with Alanson and have built that record to 20-4 heading into tonight’s District Final against St. Ignace.
The title game will be played at the Solid Rock Center. Another Jakeway, Jeff Jakeway’s son and freshman point guard Landon, will be getting his second chance to lead the Swordsmen to a District championship. He was the point guard as a seventh grader when Harbor Light won the District title two years ago. (Small schools like Harbor Light may request, for most sports, an MHSAA Executive Committee waiver to play eighth-grade students if the school’s enrollment is less than 125 and seventh-graders if the enrollment is less than 75. Harbor Light’s enrollment count for this school year is 61.)
Landon Jakeway is the team’s leading scorer, contributing 15 points per game. He scored 25 to lead the Swordsmen to a 67-31 win over Mackinaw City in Wednesday’s District Semifinal. That was Harbor Light’s third win this season over its league rival, allowing the Swordsmen to keep the Mack Light Ball, which goes to the winning team’s school after each victory in the rivalry. Wins over Mackinaw have been hard to come by in previous seasons.
David Chamberlin, at 13 points per game, and Corin Palus, scoring nine per contest, are the other leading scorers. Jakeway adds seven assists and four steals per game. Chamberlin kicks in seven rebounds per game, and Jackson Mesner and Kirk Rose contribute eight and five rebounds, respectively.
Chamberlin, Paulis, Mesner and Rose are all seniors.
“The team goal was really to ‘put the team before me’ mentality,” Roussin said. “We were going to work as a team, be loyal, be committed to one another and battle together.”
The Swordsmen also entered the season with their eyes on the Mack Light Ball, a conference championship and a long postseason run.
“We wanted to chase the conference and to battle for a District,” Roussin noted. “Obviously, we knew St. Ignace is in there and they are the favorite team.”
Senior leadership has been one of the keys to Harbor Light’s finishing atop the conference for the first time in more than a decade.
“We want to show up and play the best basketball you can to make your team the best they can,” Roussin said. “That’s what has been awesome with the leadership we’ve had on this team.
“Through all the guys is ‘it is not about me,’” Roussin continued. “It is about ‘what can I do to make the team better?’”
St. Ignace brings a 16-6 record into the Solid Rock Center. The Saints will have a chance to view some NBA history in addition to playing the final.
Above the main gym resides a mini court containing the Detroit Pistons floor from the Pontiac Silverdome. Before moving to The Palace of Auburn Hills, and most recently Little Caesars Arena, the Pistons played at the Silverdome from 1978-88.
Jeff Jakeway was able to get the court to Northern Michigan through connections in Novi.
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Harbor Light’s Vaughn Henagan (23) gets to the basket during a 59-39 win over Kinross Maplewood Baptist on Dec. 21. (Middle) David Chamberlin (22) elevates over a Pellston defender as the Swordsmen work toward a 75-20 victory Jan. 19. (Photos by Billy Mac Photos.)