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Balancing Act

Josh VanDyke • Mar 6, 2017 at 10:00 AM

SPRING LAKE TWP. — The element of surprise can be a valuable tool in any competitive sport.

The Spring Lake boys basketball team hopes that’s the case, as they prepare for a Class B district bracket full of opponents they haven’t met in quite some time.

First up will be the Montague Wildcats (17-3) in the district opener tonight (7:30 p.m. tip) at Spring Lake High School. The Lakers dismantled the Wildcats, 75-43, on December 6, 2016.

“We beat them the first game of the year, but they’ve gone 17-2 since that game,” said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core before a Thursday afternoon practice. “Their only two losses (after that) came to Whitehall by four points, twice. So they’ve basically run the table since then.

“They are a much different team than the one that came into our place back in early December. They started two sophomore guards that game that were playing their first varsity game, and we started two senior guards with a lot of experience. We pressured them and forced them to play faster than they wanted to and they were almost like deer in headlights at times.”

The relatively young Wildcat squad has grown so much over that time span that it’s drawn laughter from their locker room.

“They’ve got 19 games under their belt since then, though,” Core added. “I talked to coach (David) Osborne recently, and he said he showed his sophomores the game film from that game against us, and they laughed at how much they’ve grown since then.

“We won by 30, but we were only up by 13 midway through the third quarter. They got in some foul trouble, and it kind of snowballed on them after that. We know it won’t be the same team that comes in here on Monday, and we have to be prepared for that.”

The key to slowing down Montague is containing seniors Josh Weesies (6-foot-2, forward) and Merritt Hamann (6-foot-6, post player).

“He’s a tough, physical kid,” Core said of Weesies. “He’s averaging about 15 points a game for them. He started the season slow, and now he’s scoring in the 20s pretty consistently. Against us, he only had two points and got in some foul trouble.

“Griffin (Lorimer) seems to be the more natural matchup for him, but we started that game with Jack VanWingen on him in that early season matchup. Griffin spent more time on Garrett Hammon, who’s also averaging around 15 points per game for them.

“We’ll probably switch that this time around, because they go inside to Wessies so much. Griffin has a little more size to combat that action down low.”

Despite not coming away with a conference title in their first season in the O-K Blue Conference, the team feels more prepared for what lies ahead after battling with some of the better Class B teams in the state.

“We’re disappointed,” Core said. “We wanted to contend for a conference championship, and we weren’t able to get that done. We finished 8-4 in the O-K Blue with losses by four points, four points, four points and eight points. We were ahead or tied in the last minute of play in three of those four losses. So, we were that close.

“We’re hoping that those tough games in the O-K Blue will have us battle tested and ready to make a run in the tournament. The last time we didn’t win a conference title, we made a run to the quarterfinals, so maybe that’s what will happen this year.”

As the calendar turns to March, thoughts of a magical run to the Breslin Center creep into every player and coach’s head, even if the conversation doesn’t take place.

“We’ve never really talked about that,” Core admitted. “The Breslin Center has never been mentioned in the locker room. I’m sure it’s in every player’s mind, and it’s in my mind, too. It’s every coach and player’s dream to get there, but you have to be good, and you have to have a little bit of luck, too.

“There’s been a few years where we have beaten Ludington by 30 and 20 points during the regular season, but they would go north for the district, and we’d play Muskegon Heights. So, we’d end up getting knocked out in the district final and Ludington would make the quarterfinals. Sometimes you have to get a lucky draw with your bracket.”

With more than a full week off between their last regular season game and their first postseason game, Core has tried to challenge his team in unique ways to stay fresh.

“We took Monday off, had a regular practice on Tuesday, and then scrimmaged Holland on Wednesday,” he said. “We’re more focused on self-improvement, and to do that, we’ve been assigning sections of practices to work on things that I think we need to tweak.

“We did a lot of shooting, and we’ve also worked on our transition offense and half-court defense, too. So, I’ve geared our energy at practice toward improving in certain areas that I think we need to improve going into the tournament.”

CAPTAIN CAM

The Lakers are led on and off the court by senior team captain Cam Ball.

“Cam just has so much passion, energy and experience,” Core added. “He’s got good leadership skills, and he’s really the pulse of our team. That’s why I’m on him so much, because I know I have to get him going a little bit to get everyone else to that level.”

Ball leads the team in scoring, averaging 10 points per contest, but that’s not where his biggest impact is.

“It wasn’t a big challenge for me,” Ball said of taking over as team captain. “I just realized that I had to take over that role, and it’s not just by scoring or doing one thing; it’s by doing everything the right way and setting a good example for my teammates.”

After a disappointing football season, the former quarterback on the gridiron took a lot of those same lessons to the hardwood.

“It plays a factor, especially because football season didn’t go so well for us,” Ball said of being a leader in multiple sports. “It brought extra motivation to work harder during the basketball season, because I didn’t want to experience that again. It also helped in situations when something didn’t go well on the court, because then I can draw back on football and realize that there’s always time to make another play.”

While Ball leads the team in scoring, the gap between him and the fifth highest scorer on the team is minimal. Juniors Griffin Lorimer, Sam Johnson and Jack VanWingen, along with seniors Craig Whittaker and Isaiah Pierce have all shared scoring responsibilities throughout the season.

The close proximity on the stat sheet stems from a close bond off the court.

“We’ve all been really close,” Ball said of his teammates. “Craig and I have been on varsity since we were sophomores, but everyone else fits right in, too. We’re all close, and it’s a tight-knit group. We’re almost too close at times. The chemistry is great, and we all play harder for each other when we’re out there.”

In his final month as a floor general, Ball just wants to be remembered for the results he has helped orchestrate.

“I just want to make a long run,” he said. “That’s what most people remember when it’s all over. I think this team has the talent to do it, and I think we’d have a lot of fun making a deep run like that.

“The Rockford game was big for us. There are times when we are clicking that we feel like we can play with anyone. Everyone is going to get challenged in the postseason, and we feel like we are good enough to win those challenges if we’re on and playing our style of game.”

SAM I AM

Another key to the Lakers’ success this year is the emergence of junior center Sam Johnson, who has developed into a force on both ends of the court.

“Sam has really been so steady for us this year,” Core said. “He’s probably one of the most improved players that I’ve ever had. He’s improved by leaps and bounds from last year to this year, and I know he’ll make another jump from this year to next year.

“To have a big man of his skill level, both offensively and defensively, really changes our team dynamic. Against Grand Rapids Catholic Central at the end of the season, he had seven blocks. I had challenged him previously to be a bigger factor on defense in the paint, and he goes out the very next game and records a career high in blocks against a very big frontcourt.”

Seniors Craig Whittaker and Isaiah Pierce have also relished in their roles as secondary scorers.

“Craig Whittaker has really had a nice year for us,” Core added. “He comes off the bench for us, but he plays a lot of minutes. Statistically, he’s our best 3-point shooter, but he can also go inside, too. So, when I play him with Griffin and Sam, most teams can’t match that. He’s just a tough matchup player for most teams because of his size and shooting ability.

“Isaiah has also improved a lot, too. He’s starting to become more offensive-minded, and he’s getting more aggressive with the ball. He’s worked so hard on his shooting and his free throws. He’s usually the last guy to leave after practice, because he’s working on his shot.

“He struggled early on, but he’s really improved on his shooting and he’s gained a lot of confidence because of that. Teams were sagging off of him on defense because he wasn’t really a threat from outside.”

For Johnson, the opportunity to help his team succeed pushed him to challenge himself this offseason.

“I worked really hard this offseason to prepare for an increased workload,” Johnson said. “I knew Keegan (George) was graduating, and he was a big scorer for us last year, so I had to step my game up.

“I wanted to be a bigger factor as a scorer on offense, but I also worked hard on my all-around game. This year has been fun. I’ve really enjoyed being a team captain with Cam, and taking on that role and learning from him and the other seniors.

“I’ve had up and down stretches with my offensive game. I think once we started conference play, I really felt like my game was clicking. I started recognizing small things within our offense and how the defense reacted to it. That helped me put myself in a better position to score.”

With their collective scoring abilities, experience and maybe a little luck, don’t be surprised if this Lakers squad is dancing for more than one song this March.

BUCS’ JOURNEY BEGINS

The Grand Haven boys basketball team will also open their postseason with the same opponent they opened the regular season with.

The Buccaneers travel to take on Mona Shores (8-12) tonight in the Class A district opener from Mona Shores High School with tip set for 7 p.m.

Grand Haven defeated the Sailors, 69-56, on Dec. 9, 2016.

“The first game of the year was a long time ago, and both teams have evolved since then,” said Grand Haven coach Greg Immink. “They’ve got a younger team, but all those young guys have had a full season of experience to grow as players and as a team.

“They’ve got some dangerous scorers that we have to keep an eye on at all times, but we feel like we are well-prepared for that challenge after going through the O-K Red Conference this year.”

After a physical gauntlet of a schedule filled with familiar O-K Red Conference opponents, Immink is excited to start a new chapter after ending the regular season with a sizable win over non-conference opponent Forest Hills Central.

“I’m excited for the tournament to start,” he said. “It’s a new season, it’s a new beginning, and it’s a chance for these guys to leave a larger legacy within this program’s history depending on what they do in the next few weeks.

“It’s always good to challenge yourself out of conference. Forest Hills Central is a good team, and that was a good win.. They made us earn it, and that’s the way it should be. We shouldn’t just have patsies on the schedule at the end, you want to earn every win that you get, and we did that tonight.

Grand Haven’s leading scorer, senior wing Zac Holman, isn’t looking past the Sailors and knows he’ll be a key part of their scouting report after dropping 32 points in the season opener.

“It’ll be a big game for us,” he said. “It’s the postseason, obviously, so we’ll be playing to keep our season alive. It’ll be important for us to get off to a fast start. I think we ended the regular season on a high note, so we have a lot of confidence and energy and we’ll be ready to go Monday.

“I’m sure they’ll have a good scouting report on us after seeing us earlier this season. We just have to play our style, execute and stay focused.”

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