D4 SEMIS: Despite transfers, 'reloaded' Southfield Christian beats Dollar Bay in semis, putting them one win away from 5th title in 8 seasons
EAST LANSING — Transferring to greener pastures is often seen as a self-serving act, but there are times when it can be beneficial to those you’ve left behind.
While Southfield Christian lost two big-time players from last year’s Class D championship squad, the players who were able to step into the spotlight after their departure are now getting their own chance to shine — and don’t just fine at it, too.
The Eagles (20-6) are one win away from a repeat after beating Dollar Bay (21-5) by a 55-28 score in Thursday’s Division 4 semifinal, the second year in a row the two teams met on the Breslin Center floor, in the penultimate game of the season.
They’ll meet Frankfort in the D4 finals at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Even though they were vastly different teams than those that met last year, both coaches in Thursday’s game were able to prepare for a more familiar opponent.
“Yeah, I think so. A couple of those guys were the same, and they had a couple guys who weren’t huge guys for them last year, but then I saw on tapes they were good. But kind of like these guys,” Southfield Christian coach Josh Baker said. “These guys all played last year, and now they’re significantly better. It was nice to be able to see them, nice to be able to see a lot of the same actions, and we had a good idea what we wanted to do, from a defensive standpoint.”
Very little of the starters’ minutes came back from the Southfield Christian team that beat Dollar Bay 71-32 in last year’s semifinals.
Harlond Beverly left the state for Montverde Academy in Florida, while point guard Caleb Hunter landed at Detroit U-D Jesuit, leaving just Da’Jion Humphrey as the only returning Eagles player to start in last year’s match-up against Dollar Bay.
Humphrey scored seven straight points in a run just before the half, as Southfield Christian stretched a 10-point lead out to 18 at the half, up 34-16.
“Yeah, I was just trying to do anything to win, and get to the next game. Like we always preach, we want to go 1-0, and anything to go 1-0 today, I tried to do,” Humphrey said. “I felt it in warm-ups, actually. My teammates, they were telling me to keep shooting it, and I just felt it in the flow of the game, actually. … It was just kind of getting into the flow of the game. Like he said, play hard. If you play hard and play smart, you can just let the game come to you. Just thank my teammates, too. They found me when I was open.”
Humphrey finished with a game-high 16 points, while Jon Sanders had 10.
“Yeah, that’s the last thing he needs to hear. I was hoping you’d say ‘Effort, and he got eight rebounds.’ Then I would be happy,” Baker teased Humphrey. “But, no — he plays really hard. He’s kind of like our Draymond Green. He brings a ton of energy. He rebounds, he passes, he can really get it going. Jon (Sanders) did kind of the same thing for us last game. Went on a huge run. Noah (Rheker) went on a huge run the game before. Each of them can kind of bring a spark.”
Both Sanders and Humphrey were beneficiaries of the decisions by Beverly and Hunter to leave, giving them more playing time, more scoring opportunities, and more chance to shine.
“It’s a great situation for us four, personally. We feel like we really had the opportunity to showcase what we could do, instead of being in the background,” Humphrey said. “Harlond, he’s a great player, and we all are great players, too. We just wanted to all show that we could play.”
Sanders felt the same.
“It’s a blessing to be able to step into a bigger role that I wasn’t in last year. You always just have to find a role, fit it and do the best you can,” the senior said. “This year, I feel like I’m doing it to the best of my ability with the couple of guys we lost. My teammates are just helping me do it.”
For the Blue Bolts, it’s another nine-hour trip back to the UP, disappointed with the finish.
“Ending my career at the Breslin is something I’m going to remember for my life,” senior captain Drake Schmitz said. “It sucks that we won’t be able to go back home with a trophy, but just memories and bonds with my teammates that cannot be replace ever. It’s just nice that I was able to live it twice.”
Both times, they came in thinking they had a shot to win, even given the fact that they were playing against one of the most successful small-school programs in the last decade.
Southfield Christian won three straight titles from 2012-14, then added a fourth in seven seasons with last year’s championship. The Eagles lost once (2017) in the semifinals in between.
“Of course, of course. They’re a great program, they’re always good, you know that, but the two times I’ve been here, we’ve come in thinking you have a chance. You always have to come in thinking you have a chance. Even though you know they have great players. You try to find their weaknesses if they have any, try to exploit that — like today we came in physical, we were focused on being physical, because we knew how good they were, and our shooting went down, so it’s kind of pick your poison,” said Dollar Bay’s other senior captain, Brendan LeClaire, noting that the Eagles’ 10 makes from 3-point range was a bit disheartening. “You never like shots getting hit in your face. You try to take away the drive, then they start hitting 3s. You try to close out on the 3s, and then they go to the drive. It’s a hard guard, hard guard.”
The Blue Bolts knew that coming in, though.
Kentala felt he’d better prepared his team for how physical Thursday’s game would be.
“First of all, Southfield Christian — their defense, they make you do things you’re uncomfortable doing. They made us play fast, they sped us up. It’s hard to run anything. It’s hard to run any action. They do a great job of ball-pressure, they do a great job off-ball. Defensively, they’re just relentless. That made life difficult for us. We knew that. It wasn't a surprise. We watched film on them, we understood who they were,” the coach said. “I think we were more prepared this year, absolutely.
“It’s not a complaint, but the style of play between the Upper Peninsula and here at Breslin are completely different. The amount of hand-checking and arm-barring, physicality, the amount of physicalness at the rim — that’s something we aren’t used to. We tried to get these kids used to that, because that just absolutely shocked us last year, just how much they let them play. Those all called fouls, all day, but they’re not called down here. That’s not a complaint; that’s just an ‘is-what-it-is’ thing. To prepare your team for that style of play is difficult. We did a much better job this year of handling it, but obviously not good enough. You saw the score.”
The Blue Bolts ended up shooting 22 percent for the game — what Kentala termed their worst shooting night of the season — turned the ball over 16 times, and were out-rebounded by 11.
“Their program is phenomenal. I heard someone coin it ‘The Southfield Invitational.’ They’re here every year. We’re a very small public school from Dollar Bay, Michigan, almost as far north as you can go in the UP. And we have 100 students — and half of our students can’t play because of religious (Lutheran faith) reasons — so for us to get here once was amazing. For us to get her two times in a row, is special. … You’re choosing from 50 kids, boys and girls — do the math. Southfield Christian — again, not a complaint — they’re able to reload. They reload,” Kentala said. “They had NBA talent last year, in my opinion, and they have Division I commits this season. It’s not apples to apples. I’m just going to tell you that much right now. It’s not. But ‘to be the best, beat the best,’ or those old sayings we use. We’re excited about the challenge of playing Southfield Christian. We’d play them again if we had to.”