For a moment, it looked like the Saline basketball team might just slay another giant.
Trevor Arico, who was dynamite throughout the district tournament, hit a jumpshot to give Saline a 46-45 lead over the heavily-favored Lincoln Railsplitters late in the fourth quarter of the district championship game at Belleville. The Saline student section erupted. Coach Jake Fosdick flexed and roared. The players on the bench cheered wildly as Arico leaped into the air and pumped his fist.
Were the Hornets going to do it again? They’d slain Huron and Pioneer when nobody gave them a shot. And now, with all the photographers at the other end of the gym trying snapping pictures of phenom Emoni Bates, the most fabulous freshman in the nation, it looked like the Hornets might just beat the Railsplitterrs.
Alas, the Railsplitters prevailed, pulling away at the end to win 61-49. But not before the Hornets turned in a wicked week of basketball and made a grand statement about Saline’s basketball program.
“It’s been a statement this whole week that we can play with anybody. We’re just as talented. We have the right guys to make runs,” coach Jake Fosdick said.
Let’s stop right there. Because when this season began, I don't think I would have bought that statement.
After last season, with the development of Griffin Yaklich and Trevor Arico, I was psyched for the start of Hornet basketball season. And then the news started trickling in. Most of Saline’s returning upperclassmen weren’t going out for basketball. A two-year starter. Two other guys who’d made good progress as juniors. All of Saline’s size and strength under the basket – gone.
Then I heard from Logan Evans that he was on the team. I knew Evans as a stud on the pitcher’s mound. But he didn’t strike me as a basketball star. Little did I know.
I didn’t know what to make of the team.
Fast forward to opening night at South Lyon. We walked in a couple minutes late and I thought we were watching the freshman team. I’d never seen such a small (in height and weight) varsity basketball team – and I’ve covered schools like Britton, Deerfield and Whiteford. Saline found a way to win that game. But it was ugly. And I have to admit, I thought it was going to be a long, long season. There were times when it was ugly – especially during that 0-6 run against the Ann Arbor schools during the regular season. How the hell was this tiny but skilled team going to play Fosdick's physical and fearless brand basketball?
But a few developments changed the course of the season.
One, Griffin Yaklich got tougher and stronger. Forced into a big man’s role, he took the challenge and excelled. Yaklich did this while being the team’s premier scorer, ball handler and passer.
Pete Jacobsen, despite his stature, played with fiery competitiveness of a Ryan Foley or an Emmett Turner – providing the leadership Fosdick expects from a senior starter.
Logan Evans proved he was every bit the outside shooter his dad told me he was. And at 6’5, Evans’ rebounding was critical to Saline’s success. Evans’ game against Pioneer was one for the ages. Few players ever get the chance to put an exclamation mark on a career game like Evans did, when he dunked on the Pioneers in the final minute.
It took Trevor Arico some time to round into form after recovering from a football injury. By the end of the season he was firing. He was quick, elusive clutch. When you absolutely needed a shot, he was your guy.
And then there is Tyler Belskus – a kid who probably wouldn’t have played much were it not for all the unexpected holes in the lineup. All he did is hold Emoni Bates off the scoreboard whenever he was out there against him Friday. And hit a couple of three-pointers. And play a key role in the upset win Monday. And hit the game-winner in overtime last week at Adrian.
We knew Saline had these pieces. They showed flashes throughout the season. We just didn’t know if they’d ever fit together – all at once, for a full game.
That’s what happened sometime in the last week.
And then there’s Jake Fosdick, the animated coach who burns more calories in a game than some players. I wondered how he might piece this team together after losing all that senior leadership and size. I’ve heard people who know more about basketball than I criticize his coaching style. “Why does Jake Fosdick hate basketball?” was one of the funniest questions I received on Twitter this year. It’s a paradox. Because people who love basketball love its skill and athleticism. Nobody loves basketball more than Fosdick, who eats, drinks and breathes the sport. And yet, he coaches a style that grinds mercilessly away at the skill and athleticism people pay to see. Just ask Emoni Bates.
Somehow, Fosdick found a way to put all his pieces together this week.
And it gave Saline good reason to cheer.
Coach Fosdick, like football coach Joe Palka, doesn’t like “moral victories.” So, look at it this way. Saline picked up two literal victories in the post-season this week. Two victories as underdogs.
Even in the loss to Lincoln, how do you measure the value of the experience gained by Yakich, Arico and Belskus? The confidence gained by the plays they made. The lessons learned by their mistakes.
Kids like Cooper Fairman, Derek Caldwell, Anthony Ferraro, Nathan Holmberg, Jaden Pickett and Jason Head didn’t get to play much, if at all, but they soaked it all in. What an environment for JV call-ups Luke Darmos, Nick Dils and Ben Sundquist.
Saline didn’t leave Belleville with a trophy. They didn’t return home to practice for next week’s regional. There was disappointment. It was a game they could have won and if you're not disappointed after losing a winnable game, you better have a doctor check your pulse.
But after winning the first two games against Huron and Pioneer, the Hornets were playing with house money. They erased the sting of that 0-6 Ann Arbor tour, defeated two conference rivals in win-or-go-home games and virtually shut down the most hyped Michigan prep basketball player since Chris Weber. The whole team can take pride in that. It’s a great way to go out for Jacobsen and Evans, the seniors.
For the rest of the squad? It could be the foundation for something even better next year.