By Jef Rietsma
Their season ended March 10 in a Class C regional match-up they probably should have won.
Nonetheless, Schoolcraft High School’s boys basketball team has little to be ashamed of as it reflects on the 2013-14 season, coach Randy Small said.
“The last game is always tough emotionally and we were probably good enough to beat New Buffalo, but that doesn’t take away from a season everyone should be proud of,” Small said.
With a 19-5 final record, the Eagles claimed the Kalamazoo Valley Athletic Association crown, their fifth outright or shared league title in its six seasons as a member. That feat on its own, Small said, makes the season a success.
What will stand out more than the league title in Small’s mind, however, is a core of seniors who embraced and epitomized a team effort.
The mindset of Schoolcraft basketball is simple, he said.
“We don’t ask guys to come in and play well. We just ask them to play hard,” Small said. “And there wasn’t a player on this year’s team who didn’t buy into that concept.”
The result? Small described his team’s play as not very gorgeous offensively, but hard-nosed and scrappy defensively. With few exceptions, Schoolcraft had to fight and claw its way through the regular season, and continue that intensity in the playoffs.
Small said the seniors, without question, left their footprint on the Schoolcraft basketball program.
“We had our limitations, but through hard work and desire, we found a way to win, but it was not easy … with few exceptions, it wasn’t easy,” Small said. “I saw a group of guys who battled in every game they played, and more often than not, that gave us a W in the win column.”
He said six years ago marked a turning point in Schoolcraft basketball, a moment in time when “a bunch of guys bought into the program,” he said. As a result, upperclassmen strongly mentored underclassmen and enforced a team concept.
Not that previous teams weren’t adhering to a similar strategy, but Small said the results have yielded dividends in the form of the state championship three years ago and a squad that won a league crown this year with a strong core of seniors.
“In my heart, it was a special season and a special group of seniors because we played up to our potential and actually overachieved through hard work and determination,” he said.
Small said a home win over Maple Valley avenged an earlier loss, and road victories against Pennfield and Parchment late in the season came at crucial times and stand out as defining moments in the 2013-14 season.
“We had lost to Kalamazoo Christian on a last-second shot at home and the following Friday, we went up to Pennfield and won by 20, and that was a big win, a win we needed coming off a heartbreaker to K Christian,” Small said. “Throw in the Parchment game, and all three were must-win games and we won each of them.”
In all cases, the contests were indicative of the season, as they were hard-fought, defensive-dominated games, Small said.
Charlie Schultz, Phil Pelton, Parker Leighton, Trevor Stoddard, Kyle Santman, Zach Blyly, Caleb Proksch and Zack McDonald were the seniors on the 2013-14 team.
Small, who finished his tenth year coaching basketball at Schoolcraft, said Proksch was a pleasant surprise, as he did not play basketball last year and wound up being the team’s leading scorer this year.
“Caleb really wanted to focus on baseball a year ago and I give him credit for not joining us if his heart wasn’t in it last year,” Small said. “He decided to come out for basketball this year and he had a huge impact.”
The regional semifinal game was played without Pelton, who broke his collarbone in the previous contest. Not that Small was making an excuse for losing to New Buffalo – a team he said played a well-rounded game against Schoolcraft – but the Eagles were at a clear disadvantage without Pelton on the court.
The team had all the right pieces, he said, but without Pelton available, that balance was upset.
“And it wasn’t just because it was Phil; it could have been anybody out and without all those pieces to the puzzle out there, it would be a struggle,” he said. “That’s a tribute to how much the team concept was embraced and without one piece, it changed who we were.”
Small said Maple Valley, Pennfield and Olivet will be in a different league next year. Meanwhile, Comstock will join the KVA. The new-look league combined with Schoolcraft’s loss of eight seniors will make for an interesting season next year.
“A lot of youth and not a lot of experience next year, but a good nucleus,” Small said. “We’re losing a strong core that accounted for just about all our scoring this season, so that’s going to be something we’ll have to overcome next year.”