In Spring Lake’s first year as a member of the O-K Blue, the Lakers decidedly left the Lakes Eight behind, thrusting themselves to the forefront of their new conference and back into the state spotlight with a trip to the quarterfinals.
Over a 12-game conference season, Spring Lake fell to just two fellow Blue teams. Two losses to Coopersville and two to Class B juggernaut Grand Rapids Catholic Central left the Lakers in third place in the conference come tournament time.
That is when the magic started for Spring Lake. They ended the season with a 19-7 overall record and a place in the history books of Spring Lake basketball.
The Lakers advanced through matchups with Montague, Oakridge and Whitehall in the district tournament, winning their first and second round games by over 30 points. They closed the district title run with a 14-point victory over Whitehall to advance to the regional tournament.
A marquee victory over Hudsonville Unity Christian set up a familiar foe in the regional title game. A third go at the O-K Blue Champions: Catholic Central.
An electric game ended in victory for the Lakers, earning them a date with Benton Harbor in the quarterfinals, tying the program’s longest playoff run. They would fall to the Tigers by two points, ending the run on the threshold of history.
The victory over Catholic Central and the heroics of the post season did not come easily. A brutal trip through the O-K Blue trained a talented squad in late-game heroics and heartbreak.
Of all their conference games, just two were decided by more than nine points. Giving head coach Bill Core the tools he needed to shape a championship basketball team.
“After going to the quarterfinals in two of the last three seasons, I’ve learned that you have to have a combination of a few things. You have to start with a good team, you have to be able to finish games and you have to be a little lucky sometimes.
“Those things were pretty evident in our run. It was a battle every single game in the O-K Blue and I can’t help but think that assisted us and made us tournament ready. It was a rough and rugged road through the conference and every game went down the stretch.”
The constant assault hardened the entire squad. With a new, equally competitive challenger every night, most of the players on the floor got a chance to lead the team. A new hero was crowned every game and the Lakers began to form their identity.
“We didn’t have a true superstar for the opponent to focus on,” Core said. “We had five guys averaging between nine and 11 points and a few more hanging around six or seven.
“Teams couldn’t just shut down one or two guys, they had to play everyone.”
Confidence in the team-first approach grew as the season progressed and reached its peak following a successful district tournament run.
“We were playing our best basketball at the right time,” Core said. “Our confidence grew throughout the run. We were really concerned in the district round with Montague and grew from there.”
With the season on the line, the Lakers did not disappoint.
Putting it all together
While coach Core was concerned about a few tough matchups in the district tournament, his Lakers didn’t break a sweat through the first three games. They flattened Montague, 71-35, before downing Oakridge, 72-31. After cleaning up Whitehall, 56-42, and celebrating a district title at home, the Lakers got their first big test in the regional semifinal round.
Hudsonville Unity Christian came into the game boasting a similar mantra as Spring Lake, an all-around skilled team with no superstar to focus on, and just one loss in their previous 17 games.
Defense won the day early as the Lakers hit the first half running, forcing 11 turnovers in the opening half and holding the Crusaders to just 19 points.
The lead was short lived. A lackluster third quarter for the Laker offense let Hudsonville back into the game. With less than 10 minutes to play Spring Lake held onto just a one-point lead. Two keys plays sealed their victory, according to Core after the game.
“When we were hanging onto a one-point lead, Isaiah Peirce got a steal, went coast-to-coast, hit the Eurostep, got fouled, made the basket and most importantly, the free throw afterward,” he said.
“Right after that, they tried to roll the ball down the court to save time and Griffin Lorimer just launches himself from out of nowhere to grab it and we get the quick timeout. It wasn’t close after that.”
The hustle proved effective, earning the Lakers a third try at conference champion Catholic Central, this time with a regional championship on the line.
Both regular season matchups had been decided by slim margins, so Spring Lake had no trouble psyching up for the final showdown.
With minutes remaining in the third quarter, it looked like status quo for the in-conference rivals. The Lakers trailed by eight before a series of defensive stops and clutch shots put them back in the conversation. As the buzzer sounded, Lorimer nailed a reverse layup to tie the game at 36.
With revenge in sight, Spring Lake doubled down, outscoring the Cougars, 21-12, over the final quarter earning them their second regional title in three years.
The conclusion of the storybook season was bitter, with a two-point loss to Benton Harbor in the state quarterfinals. After grabbing an early lead and holding it through the first half, the Lakers ran out of gas on defense in the end.
The Tigers ran back the lead in the fourth quarter and created a back-and-forth affair, ending with a near game-winning three by Jack VanWingen.
“We got over the hump facing CC for the third time and had a great showing in the quarter finals,” Core said. “Just fell a bit short.
“The first quarterfinal appearance three years ago, we were just happy to be there. We were a little more business like this time with more expectation to win. We didn’t get there by mistake; we deserved to be there. I am proud and this community should be proud of what those guys accomplished.”
With a number of key pieces returning for next season, Spring Lake basketball is here to stay. With unfinished conference title business and a glimpse of the Breslin Center, the Lakers will be a force once again come next season.
Here’s the rest of our top 5:
No. 5 Spring Lake Softball
No. 4: Spring Lake Boys Basketball
No. 3: Week of July 17
No. 2: Week of July 24
No. 1: Week of July 31