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Williamston continues to build a strong program in Lansing area, looks to make a long tournament run

Basketball   | Scott Burnstein

State Champs! Sports Network

Williamston – The Williamston boys basketball team turned the corner two years ago when it knocked off defending state champion Wyoming Godwin Heights, 57-55, in overtime in a Class B regional semifinal. Williamston then won its first quarterfinal before losing its first state semifinal game.

The Hornets haven’t looked back since.

Williamston enters the 2018 state tournament with an 18-2 record, having won its sixth consecutive division (White) title out of the Capital Area Activities Conference.

But after the Hornets’ run in 2016, league crowns are no longer the sole expectation. They’re gunning for a state title. District and regional titles are becoming almost expected, and reaching a state semifinal and beyond are now the ultimate goal.

“We’d been knocking on the door before 2016, but when we beat Godwin Heights, we broke it down,” said Williamston coach Tom Lewis. “That took our ceiling to a whole other level. It was the most important 36 minutes in the history of the program. We’re still reaping the benefits, too. There’s nobody we think we can’t beat now. We play with a constant chip on our shoulder and a confidence we didn’t have before that game. We’re no longer the hunters anymore. We’re the hunted. And we’ve embraced that and are thriving in that role.”

Last season Williamston defeated Godwin Heights again (69-65 in a regional semifinal) prior to losing a heartbreaker on a last-second shot to River Rouge in a quarterfinal. If the Hornets meet Godwin Heights again in the tournament later this month it wouldn’t be until the state finals.

Lewis has been a stabilizing force for the Hornets the last few years. He took over late in the 2016 regular season from Jason Bauer, who stepped aside after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Lewis had the interim tag removed last summer. The 2016 club was captained by his son, Riley Lewis, an all-state guard currently playing at Hope College.

This season’s leading scorer, senior guard Cole Kleiver (24 ppg), learned the ropes from the younger Lewis as a sophomore starting in the backcourt alongside him.

“Cole grew up fast, we threw him into the fire with Riley and he responded,” Lewis said. “He’s just having a fabulous senior year.”

Kleiver is shooting almost 60 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range.

“I worked my way up the program, it didn’t happen overnight,” said Kleiver of his progression on the court throughout his prep career. “I’m proud to be able to say I’ve been part of getting this team over the hump. We’ve taken giant leaps as a program since I got here and I’ve learned so much through the process. Everyone’s mindset changed. We set the bar higher for ourselves now.”

Flanking Kleiver are junior forwards Sean Cobb and Joe Hahnenberg. Cobb (13 points, eight rebounds) has been sidelined with a shoulder injury lately, but will most likely return in time for the tournament.

The 6-foot-7 Hahnenberg (10 points, eight rebounds) has picked up the slack in the wake of Cobb’s absence, recording double-doubles in eight of his last ten games. This is his first season on the varsity.

“I’ve had some opportunities to make a mark with my play and I was able to step up to the challenge,” he said.  “I think we’re getting in a nice groove right now with our overall effort as a team. Things are really starting to come along at the right time.  If you want to go far in March, this is when you need to be playing your best basketball. We feel we have unfinished business. Two years ago, we just wanted the district. That seems like a long time ago. We want a lot more now.”

Frankie Toomey is a senior co-captain with Kleiver and the quintessential “glue guy.” Juniors Case Conley (6-7 center) and Mitch Cook (6-3 guard) round out the starting line-up.

Williamston opens district play Wednesday at Lansing Eastern against the winner of Monday's Lansing Sexton-Fowlerville contest.