By Ben Murphy
Tawas Area missed a free throw. Clare made them pay. The Pioneers, playing the Braves in a class ‘B district championship game in Standish-Sterling Friday night, made just enough plays down the stretch to pull off a thrilling 41-36 win, giving them their first district crown since 2012.
“This and winning the Jack Pine Conference were our goals at the start of the season,” Clare head coach Matt Alexander said. “When we fell out of contention in the conference we told them that 20 years from now they’ll remember winning a district title way more than winning a conference.”
Tawas had a 36-35 lead and had a chance to extend that margin with free throws with 1:12 left to go. The Braves missed the front end of a one-and-one however and Travis Vida knocked down an impressive spinning 16-footer to give the Pioneers what turned out to be the game-winning basket with 55 seconds remaining.
“That’s what you expect out of a four year varsity starter,” Alexander said of Vida. “In situations like that, you expect and count on guys like that to step up and make the big play for you and he did it without hesitation. I thought Travis really led us through the run we had in the tournament. He was a huge part to us getting the district title and moving forward.”
The Braves had two chances to score a late go-ahead basket but each time couldn’t get a shot off before Clare regained possession. The Pioneers then sealed the game with four straight free throws to make the final 41-36.
“We talked before the game that it was going to come down to the end of the game and we’d have to have heart to pull it off,” Alexander said. “That play by Vida was huge and Rodenbo sealed the deal for us at the line and that was huge too.”
Clare began the game with an 8-7 lead after the first quarter, thanks to a late mid-range pull-up shot form Vida just before the period ended. To start the second, Vida added a lay-in to make it 10-7 and Brenden Sersaw cashed in on a fast-break hoop at 12-7.
Later in the quarter Vida and Tyler Smith added a short-range shot each to pull ahead 18-11, but the Braves closed it to 18-15 by the half. Clare claimed a 22-17 lead on a bucket by Tucker Roe at the basket, though the Braves swung back to take a 25-22 lead.
Rodenbo answered with a three to knot things up at 25-apiece but the Braves inched back ahead by the end of the quarter, 27-26. Vida and Sersaw drained back-to-back treys to place the Pioneers ahead 32-27 in the opening moments of the fourth and Vida gave Clare a 35-29 lead by connecting on a mid-range jumper.
Tawas had one last rally as it scored the game’s next seven points to claim a 36-35 lead just over two minutes to play, but Clare rallied for the win from there.
“We knew that we would have to play a good game to get a win,” Alexander said. “We just continued to grind it out and kept getting stops on defense and that let us get the win.”
Leading the way in the win was Vida with 14 points and seven rebounds, Sersaw had eight points, Rodenbo also had eight points, Roe was good for six and Smith had five points and eight rebounds. Kaden Kelly had a big night on the boards with 10.
The Pioneers reached the championship game with a 62-45 win over Ogemaw Heights in the district semi-final on March, 8. The Falcons had won just two games during the season but gave the Pioneers plenty of fight.
“We knew that Ogemaw was better than their record showed and that was emphasized all week going into the game,” Alexander said. “We knew we couldn’t just look at their record and go in there and have it handed to us. We knew we had to stop their good guard and Rodenbo came in off the bench an just eliminated him from the game. His defense in this game and Sersaw’s defense in the Tawas game was huge.”
Clare led just 15-12 after the first quarter but it pushed that margin to 32-20 at the half and 47-27 entering the fourth. Leading the way in the win was Kelly with 18 points and nine rebounds, Smith added14 points and 12 rebounds and Vida added 13 points and seven rebounds.
“I thought that this was Kaden’s best game of the season,” Alexander said. “I Thought he was aggressive when he needed to on the offensive end of the floor and when they collapsed on him he did a good job of distributing too.”
Clare did have its season come to an end in its regional semi-final game in Cadillac on Monday, as it lost to Ludington 62-45. The Orioles also won the regional final game against Gladstone Wednesday night, 63-48.
“We knew going into that game that they we were going to have to handle their pressure,” Alexander said. “They press you from one end of the court to the other. They’re long and very quick. We knew if we handled their pressure we’d be OK, but we ended the game with 23 turnovers. I feel their pressure just rattled our guards and when you turn the ball over that many times you give up too many easy buckets.”
The Pioneers trailed just 7-5 after the first quarter but fell further back by the half, 29-20 and further still after three, 53-36. “It was a great learning experience for all these young guys to see where we have to get to next year to keep moving forward in the tournament,” Alexander said. “I told the guys I was extremely proud of them, even when we got down our guys never quit, they just continued to give everything they had on the floor. Our team chemistry this year was unbelievable. The guys on the bench were just as much into the ones in the game and I commended the guys for that.”
Leading the way in the game was Smith with 17 points and five rebounds, Vida added 12 points, Sersaw was good for eight points and two steals and Rodenbo added five points and three assists.
“I thought Vida did everything for us this game,” Alexander said. “With their pressure he had to step up and handle the ball for us a lot as well as looking to get shots for us too as one of our main scorers. He had to do everything for us and I thought he stepped up and did a great job. Smith played strong inside against another center that was just as big and physical as him and I thought he held his own against him.”
Clare finishes the season 14-9 overall and 10-4 in the Jack Pine Conference. “There was a couple times during the season where I thought we gave the games away and we just didn’t play well,” Alexander said. “We lost a couple games that we could have won but overall I’m extremely proud of these guys and the year that we had. I think it was a success. For my first year taking over the varsity here I couldn’t ask for a better group to work with every day. They worked hard every day, I didn’t have to worry about the effort or attitude they gave me in practice.”
Graduating just three seniors from the roster, the Pioneers are hoping next winter could go even better than this year. “We’re young, “Alexander said. “The seniors that graduated, their leadership will be hard to replace but I feel like we have a good nucleus coming back next year and with some kids coming up from junior varsity to add to that hopefully we can have another good year next year.”