PELLSTON—Sometimes great seasons lead to difficult endings. This was unfortunately the case for the Onaway boys basketball team Wednesday in Pellston, as they lost a Division 4 regional championship game against Rudyard, 52-37.
“This has been one of the hardest goodbyes leaving the locker room,” head coach Eddy Szymoniak said. “I am getting emotional now, I got emotional on our way here, in the pregame talk and after. It is hard, but I am just so proud of these guys though. It has been a fun ride.”
The eighth ranked Cardinals (22-2) finish with a program record for wins in a season, but had no answer for a senior-laden and third-ranked Rudyard (23-1) squad. The Bulldogs’ 1,000-plus point scoring duo of 6-foot-eight Tate Besteman and EJ Suggit proved to be as tough as advertised.
“We knew they were legit,” Szymoniak said. “We got down early and I thought our job was to make them play defense and get them in foul trouble and early in the game, I thought we did a good job of that but things didn’t go our way and we let some things go there.”
Rudyard took a 7-0 lead just two minutes into the game, with Onaway getting his first bucket on a Jadin Mix lay-in from a nice entry pass by brother Jager.
On the Cardinals’ next possession however, Besteman stole the ball near mid-court, and slammed the ball through with two hands for a rim-rocking jam and 9-2 lead.
The Bulldogs’ lead grew to 12-2, but Besteman picked up his second foul and was shuffled to the bench with 3:46 to go in the quarter.
The Cardinals used his absence to their advantage, getting a Bridger Peel shot to roll in and a Jadin Mix three from straight-on to make it 12-7.
A pair of free throws by Austin Veal made it 15-9, and the Cards closed the frame off on a steal and fast-break hoop by Justin Kramer that made it 15-11 after one.
With Besteman still on the bench early in the second, Onaway continued to hang around. Jager Mix sank a pair of free throws that made it 17-13, and Onaway had a three point attempt just rim off on its next trip down the court that would have brought the Cards within one.
A bucket by Peel kept the deficit at four at 19-15, but with the return of Besteman with about five minutes to go in the half, it also ushered in the return of Rudyard’s dominance.
A Jadin Mix hoop at 22-17 kept Onaway in it momentarily, but the Bulldogs scored the final eight points of the half, giving them a 30-17 advantage at the break.
Things turned worse for the Cards late in the half as well, when after going up for an offensive rebound, Peel had an ugly fall, hitting his head on the court and departing for the rest of the night with a probable concussion.
“That was huge, I believe he was starting to pick it up there,” Szymoniak said of losing Peel. “He was going it defensively and he also gave us a big size advantage on the perimeter. He was starting to find his groove and that’s unfortunate that something like that had to happen.”
Onaway’s last glider of hope came about three minutes into the third. Jadin Mix knocked down a three pointer that brought the Cards within 34-24. A comeback wasn’t meant to be though Rudyard led 38-25 entering the fourth and never saw its lead sit at less than 13 the rest of the way.
Jager Mix, who was guarded by Besteman, gave an admirable effort to knock down eight points in the final frame, but it wasn’t enough to extend Onaway’s season.
“I was so proud of these guys and how they battled all night,” Szymoniak said. “There were some things we could have done better, like we didn’t give our guards enough space sometimes to create some things. We kind of packed it in too much and that is not like us. But to battle all night with these guys, I am happy and there is nothing to hang our heads about.”
Jager Mix finished with 12 points, Jadin Mix scored 10, Austin Veal netted nine, Peel had four and Kramer added two.
For the Bulldogs, Suggitt finished with 16 points and Besteman had 10 points, to go along with several blocks and shot altering defensive plays.
The loss doesn’t take any shine off what was otherwise a memorable season for the Cardinals. They won their first Ski Valley Conference championship since 1963 and back-to-back district titles. They’ll graduate five seniors from this squad, but with seven sophomores on this year’s roster, the Cards could be in good shape for big runs in the next two years as well.
“I do this for groups like this, this is what keeps me going,” Szymoniak said. “The bond that these five seniors had was something that these underclassmen can look up to. They’ll be hard to replace, but I have the group that can do it. It has been a great run, I am so proud of them, especially with this young group that has seen so much growth throughout this whole season. I just hope they keep this hunger.”