D3 SEMIS: Pewamo-Westphalia holds off high-scoring Erie-Mason, gets third swing at winning program's first title
EAST LANSING — Experience teaches you caution.
When he saw his team jump out to leads of 15-0 and then 19-2 in the first quarter of Thursday’s Division 3 semifinal, Pewamo-Westphalia coach Luke Pohl was certainly happy, but he was hardly looking too far ahead.
Sure enough, as he feared, Erie Mason came roaring back, closing to within one by the 2:20 mark of the second quarter, before the Pirates were able to slowly stretch the lead back out to double digits in the second half, and win, 60-45.
“You know, a lot of times, those things come back to bite you. I’ve seen it too many times. A team lets up a little bit, and then you start to feel a little bit of pressure, as the team’s coming back,” Pohl said, thinking the Eagles had only cut the deficit to four points, at most. “They got within one? Oh my goodness. Well, I’m glad I didn’t see that. But these guys persevered. They just battled through this all year long. I just couldn’t be more proud of the way we ended up finishing.”
Pewamo-Westphalia (26-0) advances to the state title game for the third time in program history, and the first time since 2014, drawing a match-up with Iron Mountain (27-0) in Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. game on the Breslin Center floor, still searching for the first boys basketball title in P-W history.
Somebody’s going to take their first loss of the season in the title contest. While the Pirates have always been a contender in Pohl’s 22 years on the bench, he didn’t foresee this team going into the final day of the season unblemished.
“Hell no. You just don’t know. We only had two starters back. We just gelled, and we’ve done a lot of things well, defensively. No, I never dreamed of that. I never thought we would be there,” he said. “The thing is, when you go undefeated through a season, every game is like that. Guys get used to it afterwards. Everybody is trying to knock you off.”
It took Erie-Mason (23-3) a while to get itself in position to attempt to knock off P-W.
The Eagles shot just 22 percent in the first quarter, scoring five points, and trailing by 14 after one. They didn’t get on the board until Joe Liedel’s layup with 3:22 left in the first quarter, making it 15-2 at the time.
“Obviously, a lot of it is the moment. You’re playing in a facility that these guys just dreamed about getting to. We made dreams happen this year,” Erie-Mason coach Kevin Skaggs said. “You don’t give a team like that, that many points … Obviously, the moment, for guys like these to walk into this facility was big.”
Once he got rolling personally, Liedel was tough for the Pirates to stop. He had all five of the Eagles’ first-quarter points, and 14 of their 22 in the first half. He added 10 more in the third and seven in the fourth to finish with 31.
“I’m just really proud of our kids. We were going against a great player today, and also a great team. People that can shoot the 3 really well. And I thought we did a great job. It’s hard to believe you think you did a great job when a guy gets 31 points, but he certainly had to earn that,” Pohl said, giving kudos to junior Aaron Bearss for his defense on Liedel, as well as adding a game-high 16 points.
“During the season, Aaron got an ankle injury, and he was out three weeks. People think guys are like NBA players, where they can just come right back and perform, but in high school, it takes a little time. And he has really been practicing well, and he’s really good in the games. I think he’s feeling very good about himself. I thought he had to have a real big game for us.”
Liedel came into the game averaging 28 points per game — having scored more than 700 this season, with 40 on Tuesday — and with 81 makes from 3-point range on the season.
“Joe does what Joe does. He’s been doing it since he was in fourth grade. This guy is, in the old vernacular, a gym rat, which I am, too. Joe loves the game. He came to me in June, before we started our summer camps. We knew we had a good team, but we we weren’t sure who good it could be. Joe said, ‘What can I do to get better?’ I mean this is a guy that was averaging 23, 24 (points) as a sophomore. Are you kidding me? He’s asking me what he can do to get better.
I gave him a film of (Frankenmuth Mr. Basketball winner) Brad Redford, and I said, ‘You better extend your range, because Brad broke your brother’s record, anyways. You need to pay him back,’” Skaggs said. “Benny Liedel had 116 threes back in the early 2000s, that Brad broke it with 145, something crazy like that (actually 143). So Joe did it. When Joe shoots the 27-, 28-foot shot, a lot of coaches are looking at it like ‘Man, that coach has got no discipline. He lets his kid shoot from anywhere.’ Joe’s a 43-percent 3-point shooter. Joe can shoot it from wherever he wants to.
“He’s the most humble kid you’d ever want to know. The consummate player. Thirty years of coaching, 22 in college, I’ve only had maybe two or three guys just like this in all the years I’ve coached.”
The Pirates have won 15 or more games in every one of Pohl’s 22 seasons but his first, claiming 12 Central Michigan Athletic Conference titles, 10 district titles, four regionals, and now a second trip to the finals.
Tradition does not run quite so deep at Erie-Mason, which made this year’s run all that much more spectacular.
“Pewamo has a lengthy history of winning, and coach Pohl does a beautiful job. If you look at their won-loss record for the last 20-some years, he’s never had a losing season, other than his first year. When we got to Mason eight years ago, they’d only had eight or nine winning seasons in 50 years of basketball. So basketball was never been a priority there. I think this has been a continuous building project to get to this stage. It was not unexpected to get here,” Skaggs said.
“But what you cannot reproduce are the experiences that Pewamo has enjoyed. Those kids have watched the guys, when they were in elementary school, perform on this stage, or at least get to the regional finals. So they’re very much in tune with ‘They can do it.’ Our guys are still very much in the process of, they’ve created history. This is the first time we’d ever been here as a school. They’d only been to the state quarterfinals once, and that was when I graduated, and had hair and a waistline. And that was 46 years ago. So they are creating the same things that the early teams that Luke coached back at Pewamo in the late 1990s, early 2000s, these guys are generating that for probably the next coach — because I’m 63; I don’t know how much longer I’ve got, but I’ve got at least a few years.”
Liedel has another year, as well.
“My biggest thing is to keep getting better. This offseason, I just want to take everything that we’ve done this year, and honestly, I want to be right back here next year, and be even better than this year,” he said. “This is an awesome run. This is the best team that we’ve ever had in school history, so I want to take everything that we had this year, and just keep building about it, keep getting better.”