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Gielczyk: Manistee CC Overcoming Growing Pains

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It was another learning experience for the Manistee Catholic Central girls basketball team. Perhaps the most important one so far four games into the new season, and with a largely a new group.

Molly McLinden is the only returning player off last year’s district champion, and the only senior on the roster.

Holding a substantial 16-point lead, 36-22 midway through the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game, the Sabers appeared secure.

Well, not so fast. The Sabers’ youth – at times there were three freshmen on the floor together – betrayed them against defending Western Michigan D League champion Big Rapids Crossroads Academy and very nearly cost them the game.

The Cougars, who were trying to rebound after seeing their 51-game conference winning streak snapped in a loss to Brethren a couple days earlier, scrambled back to cut the deficit to just seven points, 38-31 with less than a minute left in regulation.

It could have been devastating for a young team still going through some heavy growing pains. But the Sabers showed how quickly they’re maturing as a ball club as they held off the Cougars for a 44-33 victory. It was the first time the Cougars had lost consecutive games since the 2011-12 season.

Meanwhile, it was a breakthrough moment for the Sabers who improved to 1-3 overall and 1-1 in the conference. Crossroads dropped to 2-2 and 1-1, respectively, and one that was very much needed.

"It was a big win for us," Sabers’ coach Todd Erickson said. "The spirits are up. Right now I think we’re hurting ourselves more than people are hurting us. I just don’t think we take care of the ball as good as we should be, but each game they learn to take care of the ball better.

"I mean, you have three freshmen going against three seniors, let’s say … it’s a difference. But if our three freshmen don’t care and they want to go out and play they’ll get better. You don’t get better not playing against better people.

"We’ve gone up the ladder, but we’ve got more things to do, and we know it as coaches. Having to learn how to play with a lead was something new. To play with a lead and then at the end say we’re only looking for ‘X’ amount of certain shots, because if they want to put us at the foul line, let them do it."

But the most growth came on defense where the Sabers threw a press on the Cougars, which was a new twist, and forced some turnovers that they converted into driving layups at the other end.

It wasn’t always perfect, of course. A few times the Sabers would make the stop at the lane, but then let the girl they wanted to keep from scoring slide back out to the other wing for a pass that led to a jump shot.

"I think we’ve gained in the speed of the games every time," Erickson added. "I think we’re gaining now where we can now, at times, control the speed of that game. We want to get out and go, and I think some of those guards are starting to learn.

"They were a program that stayed back, catch the ball and bring it up the floor … and I don’t want that. I want every kid to have the opportunity to get out, get on the wing and also the post players the opportunity to say ‘Okay, I can dribble out this far before I have to make that first entry pass to the outside.’

"We still do some things that make you shake your head, but you can’t. You just have to go ‘Okay, we’re growing.’"

As they grow as a cohesive unit, the Sabers are starting to open the offense for junior Elizabeth Nelson to find new ways to attack the basket or not, and more importantly Nelson is learning how to defend the basket without getting into so much foul trouble.

Nelson was plagued by foul trouble in the first two games, but has been able to avoid it the last two. She’s learning when to block a shot and when to just stand with her hands straight up. It’s made her effective at altering players’ shots.

Riley Feliczak played with Nelson last year as an eighth grader, and that experience has been evident now that she’s a freshman. It’s difficult to tell they are two grades apart.

Half-sisters freshman Jenna Bialik and junior Sarah Bialik are also beginning to form a unique chemistry on the floor that, if it continues to grow will make them a deadly pairing on the fast break.

The Sabers also have another pair of sisters in senior Molly McLinden and freshman Natalie McLinden, but they haven’t been able to be on the court together because Natalie has missed the early part of the season with driver’s education.

It has put her behind.

"We keep adding stuff," Erickson said. "Every day we add a little something on what we’re working on. Natalie will have catching up to do, but she’ll be another freshmen we’ll put on the court and play. She’s got a nice shot.

"I think last night we weren’t as tired as the other team. So, we’ve got that kind of going our way. But, I don’t think we’re in the condition yet that we need to be in the 15th game and beyond. But, we’ll keep working on that."

Catholic made a lot of shots two steps in from the free throw line in the lane area against the Cougars, shots the Sabers had been missing earlier. The Sabers also took the most shots they’ve taken in a game yet.

Erickson still wants them to take more, but he’s satisfied with their progress.

"We can’t learn to rebound offensively if we don’t shoot the ball," Erickson explained. "Last night we only had a couple hurry ups. The fast break is getting better because they are finally starting to learn roles.

"We try to script stuff for them and give them game-type situations. But it’s always like that in a game. Something else will go."

But the Sabers are beginning to make the adjustments. It’s not quite where it needs to be yet, but once it is the Sabers will gain confidence and get comfortable with the other offensive sets.

Once that happens, the Sabers will get hungrier. When that happens, the WMD had better beware. The Sabers will have arrived.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. 

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