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Coming off a 6-win season, a return to health, offseason dedication has Midland Chemics off to unprecedented 10-0 start

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, January 23, 2020, 8:18 pm

MIDLAND — Crammed in a tiny room off the main gymnasium at Bay City Western, second-year Midland High girls basketball coach Jaden Clobes laid it out on the line for his team, which had just lost its 15th game in its district opener.

When do you want to start preparing for next season, to erase the taste of this one?

“They all said ‘Now,’” Clobes recalled. “So we held a couple of real practices. From that Monday, that’s when we actually started this journey.”

After a frustrating, injury-plagued year where it seemed every break went against them, the Chemics just needed a break or two to fall their way.

So far this winter, everything’s gone their way, it seems.

The Chemics are 10-0 for the first time in program history — at least as far back as anyone can determine — and rolling at the midway point of the season. 

 “We only lost one senior from last year, so I knew we’d be good. I was excited for it. I just wanted to get better over the summer. … I knew that we could be good, but I didn’t ever expect to go this far,” said junior Sydnie Schafer, who broke her ankle in the first game of last season. “It’s crazy. We’ve worked really hard to have this record, but I want to keep going. I don’t want to lose. I just want to keep the streak going. It feels nice.” 

It’s certainly a far cry from last year’s 6-15 record, a bottoming-out that snapped a streak of 11 straight non-losing seasons.

“It’s definitely a lot nicer, but it’s harder to win than to lose. Last year, we felt like we weren’t good — no one thought we were good — so we probably didn’t give 100 percent in every practice than we did this year,” said senior Jordan Phillips, who missed the final 12 games of last season with a knee injury. “We just put a lot more work in this year.”

It was hard for the Chemics to get up for practices and games, considering all that was stacked against them. 

“I feel like a lot of us were not as excited for games and stuff. Like teams that were going to be really competitive, we weren’t looking forward to playing, but this year, we’re like ‘Yeah, bring it on.’ We’re excited to play all those hard teams, because we have so much trust in our teammates now,” said junior Anna Tuck, who missed all of her sophomore season with a torn ACL. “We’re like, ‘If we’re going to put in all this work in the summer … we want to have a good season.’ So we all dedicated our time, and worked hard in the summer. Now it’s showing up, and it’s nice, because our work is actually showing up.”

And people are noticing.

The Chemics were ranked ninth in Division 1 in the last Associated Press poll, and 15th in the most recent STATE CHAMPS! Top 25. 

It’s a program that can use the good mojo. 

Led by eventual 2014 Miss Basketball runner-up Jessie Walter, the Chemics had three 20-win seasons in the span of four years under Clobes’ predecessor, Elaine Mahabir — who resuscitated a moribund program, winning three Saginaw Valley League titles, three district crowns and a regional — but have posted just 13 winning seasons overall in the last 30. 

And none of those teams had a better start than 6-0. 

So this start is welcomed — especially if it eventually results in the first Saginaw Valley League title for the Chemics since 2014. 

“It would be a huge accomplishment, because I feel like, when people think of Midland, they just think of Dow,” Phillips said. “Like no one ever really thinks of Midland High, really in any sport. So for us to come out 10-0 and Dow — which is still a really good team this year — to beat them, and beat (two-time defending champ Saginaw) Heritage were definitely big wins for us this season.”

In a weird quirk of the SVL North schedule, the Chemics play Bay City Western, Dow and Heritage twice, but only one counts in the league standings. 

The 38-31 home win over Dow counted toward the league race, but the games against Western (40-28 home win) and Heritage (42-37 road win) did not. The Chemics will play the league contest at Western Friday, then host Heritage for the league game on Feb. 11. Also on the slate is the one lone game against a nine-win Bay City John Glenn squad at home on Feb. 13.

And, yes, with increased expectations come increased pressure.

Added to that, it was exam week at Midland. 

“We have two girls on our team that don’t have 4.0s. … Almost every girl on our team has a 4.0, so it’s very stressful,” Clobes said. “I told them yesterday, I told them, ‘I get it, it’s girls basketball. … It’s not the end-all, be-all, but what we’re trying to teach you today, will go so much further.’ Some of them are like, ‘Coach, it’s just so much pressure.’ We have two kids who want to be doctors. … I’m like, ‘There’s pressure in everything you do in life.’ I try not to put pressure on them, but I told them, ‘You’re 10-0, and if you lose to Bay City Western, you’re going to lose a lot of love, and you might have lost the Valley Championship,’ which is our No. 1 goal.’ I said, ‘Look, our goal was never to go 20-0, and it’s still not. It’s to win the Valley, and win a district.’”

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The 31-point district ouster — at the hands of their arch rival, no less — at the end of last season was just the coup-de-grace on a miserable campaign. 

How hard was last year?

Tuck tore her ACL in a three-on-three drill in practice just two weeks before the start of the season, and spent the entire year on the bench.

“We didn’t have a great season, but I knew because we had a lot of injuries on the team, I knew that next year we would come back strong, but I would just sit there and wish — especially in physical games, if we were getting pushed around — I’d wish I was out there,” the 6-foot-1 wing said, admitting it was mentally hard not to be able to contribute. “I felt like that would be a big year for me to grow, and for people to see me. But I did get to see a whole different aspect of the game, like from a coaching point of view. Coach would tell me certain drills, like why we would do that, and during the game, I would see a bunch of open gaps that the girls wouldn’t see, and I wouldn’t see if I was out there. … It was good to get a different aspect of the game.”

Then, in the first game of the season Schafer broke her ankle when she tried to swat a shot from behind, and landed on the offensive player’s foot. She returned for the final six games of the season, but was hesitant. 

“No, I was kind of scared of it. I definitely didn’t want to think that I was, but I was,” she admitted.

Needless to say, the Chemics started 0-9.

That’s when things went from bad to worse, as Phillips tore her MCL, missing the final 12 games of the season.

Then there were the eight losses by nine points or less, and seven by five or less.

“It was like the ‘Ifs’ and the ‘Buts’ and the ‘Coulds’ and the ‘Woulds.’ I took it with a grain of salt, like ‘OK, we’re young …’ but there was definitely some frustration. There were some frustrating moments last year. We never had any screaming matches, but they were frustrated, I was frustrated. We did so much teaching. … It was frustrating, but I knew — how many teams in the state bring everybody back, let alone probably two of your best players, and a third who you know is going to be a starter (from injury)? We had everybody back,” Clobes said. 

“We had that conversation after Dow, like ‘Do you want to win next year? Do you want to get better?’ 

“When we went to Bowling Green and Michigan, every girl that you see in here — even Tuck, though she didn’t play — was there. … They all committed.”

The Chemics traveled almost 1,200 miles in the summer, going to team camps at Bowling Green and Michigan, Frankfort and Northwood University. 

They played in two summer leagues. They played in a fall league. 

“I think some of us didn’t really think of it that much, because it was a tough season, but we had to come back stronger,” Phillips said. “So in the room (at Western), I think we were all in. Even the four-sport athletes, they’d show up to everything. Even on Sundays, their only day off, they’d still be here.”

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Would it pay off, though?

Sure, just a return to health would probably make Midland better than a six-win team. 

Schafer and Phillips played throughout the summer and fall, but Tuck didn’t play until he final two offseason contests, and then didn’t get back into the starting lineup until the win over Dow on Dec. 19. 

There was an opportunity to be had, though, with Dow and Heritage both graduating decorated senior classes, full of college-bound players. 

But there are no guarantees. 

The Chemics went into the new year at 6-0, having already matched their win total of a year ago. It certainly helped that they played four home games and two neutral-sites games in that start.

But … at some point the feeling had to go from ‘This is better than last year,’ to ‘We might … actually … be … really good …?’

“These guys kept telling me. This summer, we went 30-1, and we played anybody and everybody. Then we played in our fall league, and lost to Hartland by six. We only had seven kids. … Beat Brighton in fall league,” Clobes said. “In the summer, we were at Northwood, and (a college coach) was like, ‘You guys are really good,’ and I was like ‘Eh. I don’t think so.’ Then we beat Goodrich by 16, and he’s like, ‘You’re good.’ I said ‘We’ll find out.’ People are like ‘You guys are good, you’re good.’ I started to believe it, and then we went to the Mega Scrimmage, and just kind of smoked people there … we hosted a scrimmage here, played Freeland … and beat them by 28.

“I’m like ‘OK, OK.’ I’m a coach, and I’m always thinking ‘When’s this letdown coming?’ … I’m like ‘When’s this letdown going to come?’  

“It just hasn’t happened.”

There are still naysayers, people who point at what they perceive is a ‘soft’ schedule.

“It (the record) definitely is (nice), but I still feel like nobody’s taking us seriously. It doesn’t really matter, because we know what happens in the gym, we know how much time we put in. Just to keep winning, just keeps proving people wrong,” Phillips said. “They can doubt us all they want. It just fuels our fire.”

Midland’s MPR (0.700) — which approximates a strength of schedule comparison by combining winning percentage of the team, of a team’s opponents and the opponents’ opponents — was eighth-best in the state, regardless of division, and fifth-best among Division 1 teams as of Thursday afternoon.

And the doubters are just more motivation for the Chemics.

“Coach just tells us all the things that people say about us, and it just fuels us even more, and we get excited,” Tuck said. “We think it’s funny that people are saying that. It just makes us want to rave them wrong even more.”

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Part of the success for the Chemics so far is a stifling, press-based defense that’s limiting opponents to 31.2 points per game, and has forced 24 or more turnovers in every game. 

While the Chemics aren’t big, they’re long and athletic — with Olivia Carpenter (2nd team SVL in 2018-19), Alyssa Chritz (All-SVL) and Emma Rekeweg (2nd team SVL) combining with the returning trio to give Midland wave after wave of defenders to throw at ball-handlers. 

They’ve held opponents to under 10 points in a quarter 32 times so far, and outscored opponents 145-69 in the fourth quarter.

“It wears. That press wears on you,” Clobes said.

The veteran coach, who engineered an even more impressive one-year turnaround at his last stop, Bay City All-Saints — going from 1-19 to a 15 wins — leans heavily on his assistants in developing that defense. Brandon Deacons has been with Clobes since the All Saints days, while Ed Weiler — who does the statistical analysis and scouting for the Chemics — is a friend of 30 years.

The other part is a diverse, balanced offense that has no true go-to scorer, but four or five who could take the scoring lead on any given night.

“Offensively, Alyssa Chritz, Anna Tuck, Olivia Carpenter and Jordan Phillips — any one of them can go for 25 or 30. … When you have four players (who can score), you can compete with anyone,” Clobes said. “On my team, I essentially start five guards, so at some point, you’re putting a post player on two of my point guards. It’s almost to the point where it’s like we’re going to have a mismatch somewhere, unless you’re playing us with a zone.”

But the Chemics might be developing a go-to player in Tuck, who wasn’t as confident in her outside shot as a freshman, but worked on it feverishly during her lost sophomore season. 

 “I was nervous, because the seventh game of the season this year, we were having kind of a lull. … There are times where we lull a little bit, so we had a little bit of a (meeting), I brought pizza in, and we sat down, and I asked them, ‘Are we burned out? Did we do too much?’ Because I think if we didn’t do all that, we’re not 10-0 (now). I said ‘I don’t want you to get burned out,’” Clobes said. 

“I tell them, ‘When we go in these scoring lulls’ — and we really don’t; we’re averaging 60 a night — ‘we’ve gotta have someone that can just get us a basket, or get a foul.’ And it’s starting to be Anna Tuck. She’s a nightmare match-up.” 

There’s plenty of work to be done the rest of the way, and a lot of that will be on the road — seven of Midland’s final 10 games will be in hostile territory — but the the other shoe hasn’t dropped just yet.

“I still am thinking … I don’t know. I’m still leery every single game, nervous for every single game. We could play a JV team that’s 0-10, and I’m still prepping like they’re 10-0, and the best team in the state. That’s my mindset going into every game,” Clobes said. “I try to make sure that they know that I appreciate what they’re doing, but I also try to keep them level. I tell them that rankings is one person’s opinion. … I tell girls, ‘I don’t really care about rankings,’ but it’s great; from 6-15 to where we’re at, it is great. It brings good publicity to Midland High, to the girls. 

“I still think we’ve played two games out of 10 where we’ve put four quarters together.”

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FULL DISCLOSURE: The author is a 1990 graduate of Midland High School. That year, the Chemics girls basketball team went 13-8 under former coach, the late Chuck “Trz” Trzcinski, who was also the author’s physics teacher.