(Photos: Ryan Kerwin, JTV Sports)
By Gary Kalahar
Large turnovers in personnel have left the Michigan Center and Hanover-Horton high school basketball teams … right where they’re used to being.
The two teams that between them have won the last four Cascades Conference championships are atop the league again, sharing first place despite significant graduation losses. They will break the tie heading into the final two weeks of the season when they meet Friday at Michigan Center.
Michigan Center lost its top four scorers from last year’s team that recorded the first 20-0 regular season in school history and won a Class C district championship. So all the Cardinals have done this season is go 14-1, with a 9-1 league record marred only by a loss to Hanover-Horton. Coach Travis Gaddy isn’t as surprised as one might think.
“We knew we had a good nucleus back,” Gaddy said. “You can’t replace what we lost. You hope your program’s deep enough that the next guys can step up, and that’s what these guys have been doing.”
The story is similar at Hanover-Horton, where the Comets lost a handful of top players from their 19-4 team of a year ago. The difference is, the Comets have gone 11-2 (8-1 in the league) with more of a youth movement. Five sophomores and a junior are the top six scorers for a team that has just two seniors.
“We’re young, but we’ve got kids who have played a lot of basketball,” Hanover-Horton coach Chad Mortimer said. “We’ve been playing well on both ends of the floor. At the beginning of the year we had inconsistency, but we’re taking care of the ball better, and our defense is getting there. Guys are starting to believe in it.”
Jake Nichols, quarterback of the Michigan Center football team that was 9-2 and shared the league title last fall, is the only returning starter and leads the Cardinals with 15.0 points a game.
“He’s our best offensive player, and probably our best defensive player as well,” Gaddy said. “And that’s because of the hard work he puts in and the commitment he has at both ends of the floor.”
Seniors Rayfield Johnson (11.5 ppg), Abel Compton and Bryan Williams are also playing bigger roles that might be surprising others, but not Gaddy. And sophomore Jaleel Brown is the Cardinals’ third double-figure scorer.
“Williams was our sixth man, and Compton and Johnson down the stretch last year turned it on and gave us big minutes,” Gaddy said. “(Johnson) is very versatile, one of our top defenders. He can beat you in a lot of ways, and I don’t think a lot of people knew about a kid like that.”
Michigan Center, which likes to push the ball up the floor, is averaging 69.1 points a game, just three points shy of last year’s mark. Playing at a fast pace while locking down on the defensive end has been key to the Cardinals’ success.
“Where we’re at now defensively compared to where we were at the beginning of the year is night and day,” Gaddy said. “We have some individual players who were weak defensively step it up, and that’s helped us as a team.”
Sophomores Jack Brockie and Luc Laketa lead Hanover-Horton at 15.1 and 14.4 points a game. Sophomores Mitch Sauber, Rhett Laketa and Bryce Sanders and junior Donovan Kennedy all average between 5.5 and 8.4 points a night.
“We’ve had different guys step in at different times,” Mortimer said. “We don’t have one or two guys you have to stop. We have six or seven guys who can put the ball in the basket and lead us in scoring. We’re starting to shoot the ball better, and taking care of the ball so we can get good shots has been a key to that.”
“This might be the best shooting Hanover-Horton team I’ve seen, which says a lot, because they’ve had a lot of good shooting teams,” Gaddy said.
Hanover-Horton started the season 4-2 before its 74-50 throttling of Michigan Center started a seven-game winning streak heading into Wednesday’s game against Ypsilanti Arbor Prep. Michigan Center hasn’t lost in nine games since then either, and neither team has been seriously tested, with all the victories coming by double digits.
“We played a pretty complete game on both sides of the ball,” Mortimer said of the Comets’ victory over that snapped Michigan Center’s 30-game regular-season winning streak. “They are solid at every position, they defend well, and they’ve got some size. It’s going to be a tough game.”
In the first meeting, Hanover-Horton grabbed a 31-15 halftime lead and kept pulling away.
“ We fell behind a little bit early, and I felt instead of playing as a team to try to get back in it, we got a little individual,” Gaddy said. “My first thought was selfishness, but I don’t know if it was selfishness or lack of experience in being in that situation. We were basically only down in one game last year. So we didn’t react to that very well.”
After the rematch, Michigan Center will have three league games to play and Hanover-Horton four. Both have to meet third-place Napoleon (8-3). The game might take on a little extra pop since, unlike in past years, the teams know they will not be facing each other again in the district tournament. Michigan Center is moved to Class B this year after snapping Hanover-Horton’s 15-year run of district titles last season.
“Everyone’s saying it’s for the championship, but anything can happen,” Mortimer said. “You can’t win the conference (Friday). But you could lose it.”