BY WENDI REARDON PRICE
Clarkston News Sports Writer
It was the ending all teams dream of – holding up the state championship trophy in victory. The Clarkston cagers dominated Michigan State University’s Breslin Center to bring home a back-to-back MHSAA Class A Boys Basketball State Championship with a 81-38 win over Holland West Ottawa on Saturday.
“This one brought me to tears,” said Dan Fife, long-time head coach for the Wolves. “Last night, I was up thinking about the kids and the pressure, this moment – what it could mean to our community and our kids. Clarkston is such a great community. If we would have lost this game, I would have felt like I let them down. It’s such a special place. It’s a great place to live. It’s home.”
The first championship was special to him because it was something he dreamed of when he played for Clarkston and during his first 35 years coaching. But the championship in his 36th year coaching was more special.
“Having to go through a year from when we left this building, everyone starting talking about back-to-back,” Fife said. “I know how hard that is because it took us so long to get the first one and if these kids can live up to the challenge. I can’t say enough about these kids. You know it’s in their hearts, once it’s in your heart, you can’t take it out.”
He added they worked with each other and encouraged each other – they played together as a team.
“Along with our coaches Eric Chambers and Tim Wasilk, it’s just a great group to be around,” Fife said. “ It’s been a great team. It’s been a tremendous honor for me.”
Fife added the win was an outstanding performance for the players defensively and rebounding.
“The difference was we were able to come out from the start to get a lead and set how the game was going to be played,” he added. “We did a great job on defense. We talked about it last night watching film with the kids and they played about as well as they can play.”
“To be honest, playing in this atmosphere on this stage, I think it definitely helped being here this year. There were no nerves. Our team came in, we weren’t bright-eyed, we weren’t scared playing under the lights,” said senior guard Foster Loyer, who scored 40 points on their opponents. “Being here helped and coming into the game with the mindset to attack, working on my shots, so I was happy to be shooting that way.”
He added he couldn’t ask for a better finish to his high school career.
“To be able to make two state championships with my teammates, I don’t think we could ask for a better end,” he smiled, sitting next to senior starters Taylor Currie, CJ Robinson, Chase Wasilk and Nick Wells.
Championship game, March 24:
Clarkston 81, Holland West Ottawa 38
The Wolves quickly got their lead going with a 3-point shot from Loyer in the first 15 seconds, receiving cheers from the Jungle, Clarkston’s student section.
Robinson was next with his field goal before West Ottawa’s Xavier Wade shot two from the free throw line to put the Panthers on the scoreboard.
It was followed by another 3-pointer from Loyer as he became the No. 1 in career points for the Wolves with 4:24 remaining in the first quarter. Another 3-pointer from senior Chase Wasilk furthered the lead 12-4.
“We carried over our success from yesterday into today,” Loyer said. “It got us rolling. As a team we executed our game plan. We came out and played the way we wanted to play.”
Robinson hit one more field goal and Loyer scored on two more baskets before they closed the first stanza, 19-6.
The Panthers scored five points in the first minute of the next quarter, only to be matched by seven points from Loyer. They scored nine more points for their highest quarter with 14 points as the Wolves scored a total of 30 to close the half, 49-20.
“Clarkston is really good,” said Steve Windemuller, head coach for West Ottawa. “If that’s any news to anybody you have been living under a rock or in a cave. They were obviously really good today. It’s one of those things. You get to play them one time. I am not sure if us playing them 10 times would have made a difference. It wasn’t quite the way we wanted to end it and the way we wanted to play. Congratulations to them. They are one heck of a team.”
The Wolves didn’t score again until three minutes into the second half, but continued to dominate as Loyer scored seven consecutive points followed by six points from Currie and a field goal from Robinson with four seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Loyer led with 40 points with six field goals and had seven assists and three rebounds.
“Foster is no slouch,” Windemuller said. “He is a pretty darn good player. To see him in person is really special because he is a special player. What he did today looked like it was pretty effortless at times. I wish him the best at Michigan State.”
Loyer also finished his career at Clarkston with 2,323 points to beat the previous record holder and his future assistant coach at MSU, Dane Fife.
“Well, I just want to take a second, I see him in the back there, I just want to say he can’t guard me,” Loyer laughed. “In all honesty it’s great. I am excited to be here with my teammates and celebrating the state championship.”
Robinson scored 18 points with four field goals, three assists, three rebounds and two steals. Currie had 13 points with ten rebounds and one field goal, scored with 5:48 remaining in the game.
“I saw Tristen (Mysen) coming in for me so I thought I need to let one fly,” he smiled. “And it went in. I went wow.”
Semifinal game, March 23:
Clarkston 74, Warren DeLaSalle 49
“It was a good win for our kids,” Fife said. A couple did a good job at rebounding and getting loose balls – that’s always important to us. I am happy with the win. Anytime you get to this level and win is good.”
“Throughout the year we have seen pretty much every defense could be thrown at us,” Loyer said. “We work on each little thing. Honestly just to come with the mindset early in the game, we are going to attack and play hard. Tonight my teammates and myself came out and threw that first punch. We are going to make them adjust to us.”
The Wolves jumped to the lead in the semifinal game against the Pilots with a 12-3 run with eight points from Loyer.
He went on to hit two more field goals in a span of a minute and another at the buzzer as the first quarter ended, 23-13.
“When he gets like that, we try to key in on getting him the ball, and he knocks it down for us,” Robinson said. “Ultimately, it fares well for others. He does a good job of getting everyone in and supporting us.”
Currie opened the second quarter with two points with DeLaSalle’s Kole Gjonaj matching it with a 3-pointer.
Senior Hank Schemmel scored the next two points off Currie’s rebound before Gjonaj scored two more.
Loyer led with 42 points, with four rebounds and three assists. He scored off seven field goals.
“I don’t think in 31 years as a varsity coach anyone has remotely scored that many points,” said Greg Esler, head coach for DeLaSalle. “The thing about Loyer is he is so good and so deceiving. He might not be the fastest but all the sudden he shoots a 25-footer, getting it to the rim. Everything we geared towards was stopping him.”
Currie had 16 points with 12 rebounds. Robinson had nine points with three steals and five assists.
“Foster and CJ are as good as guards as there are in the state,” Fife said. “It’s very hard to guard both of them. These guys can handle the pressure and different defense lines. These two guys have seen a lot of what other people are doing. It worked out well. Looking at the score, it didn’t seem in my mind it was that big of a differential.”
Wells had four points with six rebounds and three steals.
“Often Nick is matched up with a bigger wing,” Loyer said. “For him to come out there and give us 100 percent every night, the rebounds he gets. Our whole team has gelled as a team. We know our roles and I think every guy on our team comes in each game, each practice and fulfills their role.”
“Close to 180 teams start in Class A and we came down to Final Four,” said Esler. “It certainly was one of our goals with nine seniors.”
Quarterfinal round, March 20:
Clarkston 52, Carman Ainsworth 31
“To get three of these, I don’t know if our kids understand how tough this really is,” Fife said, about winning the third quarterfinal playoff game in a decade. “To be honest with you, we have been playing with a bullseye on our back all year so everyone we play we have talked about if you get lax or let up then you will get beat. Carman Ainsworth is a good team.”
He added defense was the strength during the win.
“Our offense was a little ugly, but we got it done,” he said. “A lot of times when you struggle on offense, you don’t guard. I thought we struggled on offense. Every basket was hard. We didn’t get very many easy baskets.”
The battle began with a close first quarter beginning with Cavalier Jamarreyon Houston scoring the first two points with Wells tying the score less than a minute later.
Currie added two points to the lead before Ja’Kavaien Lewis shot one point from the free throw line to narrow the gap.
The Wolves added 12 more points with with five more points from Robinson, three from Wells and two from Currie and Loyer to close the quarter, 16-7.
Clarkston’s defense kept the Cavaliers to five points in the second quarter before closing the first half, 27-12.
Loyer led with 19 points and had ten rebounds and six assists.
“He was struggling on shooting, but he still had confidence to shoot,” said Fife. “He is such a competitor, he believes in himself. So many kids would miss shots and quit trying. Not Foster.”
Robinson had 12 points, five rebounds, three assists; Currie had nine points, 11 rebounds, three blocks; and Wells had seven points, four rebounds and two steals.
The Wolves graduate 11 seniors who had a 97-6 overall record the last four years and led the team to two state championships.
“It’s pretty impressive to me, I have been coaching my heart out,” Fife said. “These kids have been fun to work with. I always say in my mind, you have to be happy with who you can lose with. These kids, just the way they go about business when I’m not there. I don’t have to be there. I don’t have to tell them to get in the gym. These kids are extremely close and have a great relationship on and off the floor. I believe it’s going to carry on. These kids played with a bullseye for four years and continue to play like they have. It’s a tremendous success story about who they were as kids and how they went about business.”