Photo by Ryan Kerwin, JTV Sports
By Gary Kalahar
As an assistant coach for the Michigan Center High School girls basketball team, Joe Lusk was left with a regret after the Cardinals’ unprecedented run of postseason success more than a decade ago.
“I wish I would have sat back and enjoyed it, instead of making it more like a job,” Lusk says in looking back on two state runner-up finishes and a semifinal appearance from 2003-05. “When it got done, I said, ‘I probably should have enjoyed that more.’”
Lusk has another chance to relish the moment, this time as the head coach of a Michigan Center squad making another trip into the final week of the season. The Cardinals are headed to a Class B state quarterfinal game against Harper Woods Chandler Academy at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Tecumseh. A victory sends them into the weekend’s final four at Calvin College.
For Lusk and many others in the Michigan Center community, this season is bringing back memories of a run unlike any other girls basketball program in the county has achieved. The Cardinals went to the Class C state title game in 2003, lost in the semifinals the next year, and returned to the championship game again in 2005. Their record in that span was 79-4.
“He’ll bring them up to give us examples, like when this happened to them, this is what you can be ready for, to prepare us,” Michigan Center sophomore Teagan Haynes said. “But I don’t think we feel pressure because of them.”
There is one clear similarity. The 2003 team included 12 underclassmen, so it was largely the same team the following two years. This season, the roster includes two freshmen and four sophomores – all four of whom were on the varsity last year – along with three seniors, one of whom is out with an injury. That youth has not stood in their way as the Cardinals have gone 22-2 with an unbeaten Cascades Conference record followed by district and regional championships.
“I knew we were talented enough to do what we’ve done,” Lusk said.
This is Lusk’s sixth season as head coach since taking over after the death of Scot Furman in 2012. An all-conference basketball player at Michigan Center and the league’s top scorer in 1974, Lusk had no intentions of being a coach until his daughter Courtney came home from elementary school one day with some news.
“She said, ‘Dad, there’s a tournament at Vandercook and we’re going to play, and you’re coaching us,’ ” Lusk recalls. “I said absolutely not.”
Lusk, an employee of Consumers Energy, ended up taking on the duty. When that group hit high school, Furman asked him to become his assistant.
“I said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m not doing it,’ ” Lusk says.
He was on the bench as Courtney and her classmates fueled the great success. And he would have liked to stay at Furman’s side for as long as he coached. But when Furman, who compiled a 353-112 record and was hailed by a school official as “the face of Michigan Center,” passed away, Lusk was promoted – again with reluctance, tinged with a sense of duty.
“I looked at (wife) Cindy and said, ‘I have to,’ ” he says. “I’d rather have it the other way. I would be content. I didn’t aspire to be here, but here I am.”
Lusk’s first team won a district championship, and each of his teams have won at least 15 games with the exception of the 2015-16 squad that went 6-15 while dealing with what he termed “bad dynamics.”
“When we got together last year,” Lusk says, “I said, ‘What do you guys want out of this year, do you want to do the same thing we did last year?’ They said heck no. They had already talked to each other and said we’re not going to do that. It was just not any fun.”
The difficulty that can arise when youngsters are promoted to the varsity – in this case, four freshmen – was thus alleviated. The Cardinals say their camaraderie has been a key to going 20-4 with a district title last year and rolling through this season.
“We’re always hanging out with each other, whether it’s five of us or two of us or the whole team,” senior Masyn Shannon said. “Last year, that was a very big (challenge) for us trying to create that chemistry, because we pretty much had a whole new team together. But we’ve built more than a friendship, we’ve built a family together.”
Michigan Center has built its success on unselfishness, balance and solid defense.
“Our main focus has been passing and not being selfish,” Haynes said. “Earlier in the year, we had games where we were all in ourselves. (Lusk) always says, try to get your teammate’s name in the paper. When we do that, that’s when we’re the best.”
Masyn Shannon, who earlier this season topped the 1,000-point career mark, leads the Cardinals with 13.5 points a game. Sophomores Kaycee Shannon and Alize Tripp and freshman Shea Tripp all average between 9 and 10 points a night. Haynes and sophomore Morgan Morris add almost 5 points a game. Seven players have scored in double figures in a game, and six have led the Cardinals in scoring.
“I tell them that scoring thing is over-rated,” Lusk said. “I think we were wondering if people were worried about their points. We finally got over that, and now the only stat that counts is the one that’s on the scoreboard. If somebody’s numbers are down, somebody will pick them up. I’m waiting for the game where everybody brings it. If everybody brought it, I would feel bad for the other team.”
The effectiveness of Michigan Center’s balance was on display in a 49-36 victory over New Boston Huron for the regional championship. One player scored all 15 of New Boston Huron’s first-half points, and two players combined for 34 of its 36 points. Michigan Center had five players score between 7 and 11 points.
The Cardinals allow an average of just 33 points a game, and in four state tournament games they haven’t given up more than 41.
“We really work as a team defensively, and we communicate well,” Shea Tripp said.
Haynes is a leader of the defensive effort, known for using her quickness to pester opponents.
“I wouldn’t want to play and have Teagan guarding me,” Lusk said.
Pressure defense is likely to be the biggest obstacle the Cardinals face on Tuesday against Chandler Park (17-6), which would like to turn up the heat and force the action at a more up-tempo pace than the Cardinals prefer.
“They’re all over, all the time,” Lusk said. “If we handle their pressure, we’ll be in good shape. If not, it will be a different story.”
It already is a different story in one respect for the Cardinals this season in their first foray into Class B since 1973, the first year of the MHSAA girls basketball tournament. Michigan Center has been in Class C every year since then, until its enrollment barely pushed it into the larger class this year.
“We knew that was going to be an adjustment, but we’ve done well,” Masyn Shannon said. “We knew there were going to be more good teams and better competition. There was good competition in Class C last year, but we took it as a challenge. We’re looking at it like, it’s a basketball game, just play like we know how to.”
Haynes has an even more optimistic view on competing against the bigger schools.
“If anything, I thought, this is a chance for us to make history – the first Michigan Center Class B team to do some stuff,” she said.
And if the Cardinals advance to the final four weekend, Lusk will again recall one of the many things he learned from Furman, this one coming after Michigan Center lost the 2003 state championship game by the largest margin of any Class C final in history.
“I felt bad for a week,” Lusk said. “Like I did something wrong, I didn’t prepare them, I didn’t do this, didn’t do that. I told Scot I felt like somebody punched me right in the stomach.
“He said, ‘I got over it. We got beat by a lot. But there were a lot of people who wanted to be us.’ ”