Grand Rapids Catholic Central's quarterfinal losses each of the last two seasons fuels the Cougars' tournament aspirations
Grand Rapids - Sophia Karasinski sees nothing complicated in explaining Grand Rapids Catholic Central's phenomenal success in the state basketball tournament.
Karasinski, a senior, said a program that's won over 90 percent of its state tournament games since 2009 features players who never look ahead, has formed a unique team chemistry and displayed an increased maturity.
This is particularly true for a senior class, which has played in the last two Class B quarterfinals and has compiled a remarkable 63-6 mark since they began playing together as sophomores in the 2014-15 season.
This season the Cougars, ranked No. 3 in Class B, lost their opener to Muskegon Mona Shores, a Class A state-ranked school, and enter the tournament on a 19-game winning streak.
"Everyone has something to bring to the table," said Karasinski prior to the team's regular season finale, a 68-30 win over Grand Rapids Covenant Christian. "As freshman and sophomores we were a little immature. We weren't used to varsity then, but we've come together. It's taken a while to get all the kinks out, but we're on our way."
Catholic Central, which opens district play Monday at 7 p.m. at Grand Rapids Forest Hills Eastern against Grand Rapids Wellspring Academy, has easily been the Grand Rapids area's most successful post-season team since the Cougars played in back-to-back state title games in 2009 and '10. This stretch included a huge upset of Detroit Country Day in the 2010 state final. Even when the Cougars have lost a tournament game, it's come against one of the top teams in Class B. In five of the last six tournaments, the Cougars have lost to either the eventual state champ or runner-up.
It's no surprise that the Cougars have fared well against the state's elite, said Shaniya Huggins who, along with fellow seniors Karasinski, Myka Cromwell and Kyra Bussell, have started on varsity the last three seasons. All four will play at the collegiate level next season.
"We treat every team the same and come out with intensity," Huggins said. "Our goal is to play hard and just be us."
Trevor Hinshaw, in his fourth season as head coach, said his seniors are a special group. He explains their success as being able to see the smaller picture. He defines success as recognizing a day starts with a quality breakfast, using each minute of practice productively, paying attention in school and getting enough sleep at night.
"We're so focused on doing the little things. They add up. It's a matter of taking care of yourself, which our kids do," Hinshaw said. "At Catholic Central, it's an understanding of tradition long before we were here."
Hinshaw and the players say there is little conversation about finally slipping past the quarterfinals. The Cougars have been eliminated in that round each off the past two seasons and both losses were excruciating. Catholic Central fell to Haslett 48-38 in 2015 and eventual state champ Marshall 41-30 last season.
Hinshaw said the players recognize they've been no more than a handful of plays away from bigger things the last two seasons.
"We've lost some tough games to some good teams," Hinshaw said. "That doesn't make us feel any better, but it is a sign that we've played at a high level."
While there is little conversation about converting three more steps in the state tournament, Cromwell said the players understand this is their last chance at a coveted title.
"It's in the back of our mind, but we take things one day at a time," she said. "We have thought about it, but we don't let bad habits creep in."
Bussell said there is one difference between this season and the last two. It's simply a better team, she said. The players know how close they've been, what they need to accomplish to go further and are driven by both. There's also pure basketball ability, she said.
"I think this is the best we've been," she said. "We're bigger, faster and stronger than the last couple years. We're in the best possible shape we've ever been."