And just like that, it is over.
The Hornets traveled to the dome at Ann Arbor Huron High School Tuesday night in the opening game of the 2017 District 17 playoffs to face the River Rats for the third time this season. In the district playoffs, you play until you lose. And though the Hornets fought until the bitter end, it was not enough to extend their magical season another game.
Saline took the opening round in this hoops slugfest 42-40, on their home court in January. The River Rats won the rematch under the dome two weeks ago. And in the dramatic finale Tuesday night, Huron hung on to claim a 62-56 win to advance on to play SEC Red Division champion Ann Arbor Skyline. Saline was down by as much as 13 in the final quarter, and down by ten with less than four minutes to go. Saline Head Coach Jacob Fosdick engineered one last dramatic comeback to pull the Hornets to within four with less than a minute to go. And in a final gesture to thank his starting seniors, Coach Fosdick called a time out with 0:02 seconds left in the game, and allowed the starting four seniors, the “Dynamic Duo” senior guards Ryan Foley and Jacob Finkbeiner, senior forwards Calder Pellerin and Justin “Juice” Zylstra exit knowing they had played their last game in a Hornet uniform. Hugged by Coach Fosdick, the seniors walked into SHS hoops history to a loud and sustained standing ovation from the Saline fans.
Saline got things going early when Foley hit a three-point shot, followed by another quick basket from Emmet Turner to give the Hornets an early 5-2 lead. Turner grabbed an offensive rebound to put Saline back into the lead 11-10. Turner had 14 rebounds in the game, including four offensive rebounds that led to eight points. The lead changed five times in the first quarter with Huron holding a slim 16-14 when the first of four intense quarters was over.
In their typical fiery style of intense defense, both Foley and Turner were on the bench with two fouls each. The intensity of the game didn’t diminish when substitutes sophomore forward Connor Terech and junior guard Erik Wenning were in the game. Terech and Pellerin combined to score all ten of Saline’s second quarter points to keep the game close with their teammates on the bench. Terech, “The Junior Beast”, came off the bench to score six huge points, including one where he soared above all Huron defenders to grab an offensive rebound and convert on an easy lay-up to knot the score at 24-24 with a little over two minutes to go in the half. All across the SEC, Coach Fosdick’s zone defense is well known and respected. Fosdick said prior to the game that when schools were nominating players for all SEC Honors, rival coaches nominated the Saline Zone defense. The compliment was a fitting tribute to a group that has redefined what excellence and success means on defense. When the horn sounded sending the teams to the locker at the half, the River Rats were up 26-24
.As has been the story in other losses this season, one quarter where the Hornets get out of rhythm was the difference in the game. Saline was outscored 16-9 in the third quarter when shots rimmed out and untimely turnovers under the River Rats full-court press. When Foley, Finkbeiner and Zylstra broke through the press, Saline didn’t finish in the offensive zone. Saline committed eight turnovers in the game but five came in the third quarter. Those turnovers helped Huron string together a seven-point run to end the quarter and take a commanding 42-33 lead into the fourth.
And what a wild fourth quarter it was. Down 57-45 with 1:14 left in the game, the Hornets showed that they would not go quiet into the night. And the fourth quarter showed everyone all you needed to know about Coach Jacob Fosdick. He described his players as “relentless”. Coach Fosdick is also relentless. He is optimistic. And his love of the game of basketball is contagious. And every single parent, Saline student as well as opposing fans commented on how hard “that Saline team worked.” Huron Athletic Director Dottie Davis approached me during the fourth quarter action to praise Fosdick and the Saline hoops team. She said she couldn’t remember a team that worked as hard as Saline when they were down by double-digits in the final minutes of a game. Ms. Davis added, “they are fun to watch.” And that is all Jake Fosdick.
It was the seniors, along with a heroic effort by “The Beast” Emmett Turner that brought Saline storming back. Pellerin was fouled while taking a three-point shot and converted one to cut the lead to 57-46. Then Turner was fouled with a minute to go and he converted both to cut the lead to 57-48. After a Huron turnover, Pellerin sank a three to cut the lead to 57-51. Then “The Beast” became a storm front that cut around and through River Rat defenders and scored five points in a span of twenty seconds to cut the lead to 60-56. Turner showed loyalty that will serve as an example for other players wanting to play varsity basketball for SHS. It was clear that Turner was in beast mode and wanted to get a win for his senior teammates. In the end, it wasn’t enough as the clock wound down and the seniors exited the game with two seconds left, physically and emotionally exhausted.
Turner, working with Foley, Finkbeiner, Pellerin and Zylstra provided new meaning to the phrase made famous by NC State Head Coach Jim Valvano, just months before his death, when in his 1993 ESPY Awards speech while receiving the Arthur Ashe Award said, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Jimmy V would be proud of these players.
Following the game, Head Coach Jacob Fosdick had nothing but praise for his team and players. “The seniors have built the basketball program here in Saline. They have been relentless in their desire to win. Whatever they choose to do in life, whether it is businessmen, teachers, professors, whatever, they will be successful because they are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and success.” Fosdick continued, “I can’t imagine a better group of seniors, starting with last year’s group, and then building and expanding upon that with this year’s group. I will be forever grateful to them (Foley, Finkbeiner, Pellerin & Zylstra) for believing in me and in what the basketball program in Saline could be.”
Matt “The Man of Steel” Rosati and the seniors started it last year. Foley, Finkbeiner, Pellerin and Zylstra and the rest of the seniors on the team added more to it this season. These guys have taken a program that just three years ago was 4-12 and have turned it into a program that is competitive with the best in the SEC.
The seniors have collectively said “we want more”. And, “we expect more”.
For the district game at Huron, five players from the junior varsity squad were added to the roster. They got a first-hand look at life at the varsity level. They saw slam dunks. They saw elbows flying, players fighting hard for every possession. They saw lofty three-point shots swish perfectly through the hoop. They saw how exhausted their senior teammates were when they left the court. The JV players got just a glimpse of what it takes to be competitive at the varsity level. While high school sports aren’t life and death, team sports provides a unique building block in that you are a part of something so much greater than yourself.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME:
1st Star: (For the last time) Ryan Foley, Jacob Finkbeiner, Calder Pellerin, Juice Zylstra
2nd Star: Emmett “The Beast” Turner (19 points, 14 rebounds) – a monster performance
3rd Star: Connor Terech (6 points, four rebounds)
A SPECIAL MESSAGE TO THE SENIORS:
When I was a nineteen-year old kid, a friend of mine (older and much wiser than me) asked if I was watching the Watergate hearings on television. (If for some reason you don’t know what I mean by Watergate hearings – shame on you and look it up). I said no. He said “Steve, you are living history now. You need to pay attention to what is going on. It will probably never happen again in your lifetime.” I did watch and so far, he has been correct. Looking back, I am so thankful for his advice to me. It is hard to know when the events around you have the potential to produce change. I mention this only to pass along the same message to each of you. (And hopefully some of you think that I am not only older than you but maybe a little wiser).
You will probably all be in your thirties or forties before you will be able to look back at this season and recognize it for what it is. It isn’t on the scale of an impeachment of a US President but it is a significant step in the evolution of SHS basketball. Absent a high school player destined for the NBA, or a team full of college prospects, most teams achieve program success on hard work, team cohesion, coaching and a little bit of luck. Your efforts this year has defined what is expected of all who come after you and wear a SHS jersey. People will be talking about you for years to come. Your nicknames will remain in the lore of SHS basketball. I have had young kids approach me to ask that I name them when they get to high school. This is all because of their admiration for each of you.
With last year’s seniors, you have started something special in Saline. It has been my privilege that I have been able to watch and write about your successes. As I wrote last year, I hope all of you return from time to time next season to see what you have begun. You are a special group, and in thirty years or so, you will realize just how special you really were.
And on behalf of a grateful school and town, thank you.