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D4 FINALS: Southfield Christian overcomes early losses, beats Frankfort to win fifth title in eight years; ‘This one is more sweet’

By: Matthew B. Mowery, March 16, 2019, 10:00 pm

EAST LANSING — It wasn’t the losses so much as the losses, if you get the drift.

The Southfield Christian Eagles were OK with the loss of a pair of teammates who transferred to greener pastures, knowing they had the pieces to replace them, but it was a 2-5 start that had them concerned that maybe a repeat wasn’t in the cards.

“Our conversation repeatedly after a couple of those games was like, ‘Look, we gotta choose if we’re going to be great, or if you’re going to be OK, and we’re going to be OK with just being .500 and average. Beat some teams, and lose to some better teams, and call it a season. I mean, what are we going to do here?” Eagles coach Josh Baker recalled on Saturday.

“And, so as a team, we just sort of collectively decided that we’re going to put in more work, and put in more time and more effort. We’re going to come early and put up more shots, and we’re going to watch more film as coaches. We’re just going to give extra effort. That’s the only thing we know how to do. That’s what we kept repeating: ‘Look, all I know how to do is work harder than everybody else, and then we’ll live with the results.’”

The results were much on par with what Southfield Christian has made routine over the last decade: The Eagles ripped off 21 wins in 22 games, winning 11 straight after its lone loss — to Division 2 runner-up River Rouge — and the seven required to win the state title.

Saturday’s 63-39 win over Frankfort at Michigan State’s Breslin Center gave Southfield Christian back-to-back titles, and five in eight seasons.

Baker was at the helm for four of those — the first two in the three-peat from 2012-14, and the last two — and an assistant to Clennie Brundidge in 2014, when he took a temporary role reduction for family reasons. He’d wanted to build a lasting winner when he arrived, but he’d never have envisioned this.

“Yeah, no, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. It’s so hard. We were 10 years at Romulus, and we never got one when I was there. We lost in the final four twice. Nate only got one. It’s really, really hard to win. If you would’ve told me that, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Baker admitted. “The thing is the work ethic, I think. You get kids that love the game, that want to be great, and want to live in the gym, and then you create a culture of ‘This is what we do every single day.’ We lift before school, we lift after school, and then we’re either doing open gym or skill work. Just the culture of that’s what we do, and that’s what our ninth graders will walk into as well.”

That work ethic was how the Eagles overcame the early struggles on the court, just like it was how they made up for the loss of two high-profile players who transferred out. Harlond Beverly went to a prep school out of state, while Caleb Hunter was in action on the same floor Saturday, going to eventual Division 1 runner-up Detroit U-D Jesuit.

“We lost Caleb Hunter and Harlond Beverly — those are our brothers, we love them. Any opportunity they feel is better for them, we’re just going to agree with and hope for the best for them,” senior Jon Sanders said. “We felt like, with that situation, for both of us (himself an Da’Jion Humphrey) it was the hardest we ever worked, to get back to this point, because we knew our roles were going to be 10 times bigger. So we just worked harder, and stepped into the roles.”

That makes Saturday’s title all that much sweeter, even than the one they were part of a year ago, albeit in lesser roles.

“Yeah, this one is more sweet, I’m not going to lie. We worked hard — me, Jon, everybody on the team — we put in countless hours, and as you can see, it pays off,” Humphrey said. “Southfield Christian basketball is still here, and we’re still thriving.”

The Eagles were thriving in the first half of Saturday’s title game, plenty to build up a big enough lead that much of the second half was spent with reserves on the floor.

Southfield Christian shot 61 percent in the first half, leading Frankfort (21-6) by a 24-12 margin after one quarter and 44-20 at the half. The two teams matched each other in scoring the rest of the way.

Humphrey led all scorers with 20 points, while Sanders had 19, and Noah Rheker had 10. Will Newbold had 17 points to lead Frankfort.

Southfield Christian also used its pressure defense to force 16 turnovers from Frankfort.

Having survived Tri-unity’s pressure-generated comeback in the semifinals, it was something that the Panthers expected.

“Southfield is long and athletic, so you can’t really prepare for it — in practice, you can’t really simulate it. … The press did bug us a little bit, but I didn’t think it was over the top,” Frankfort coach Dan Loney said, admitting there’s a difference between seeing the Eagles on film, and in person. “There is a difference. We knew they were going to be tough, watching film. … You watch them, and you watch their starters, and you think, ‘OK, we can guard this guy this way.’ And then they bring in two or three subs, and they’re completely different players, and they can do the same things, if not some things better. They’re a tough matchup. They kept running guys into the game. Honestly, by the end of the game, I didn’t know who was a starer, and who was a sub.”

The subs provided much of the excitement in the second half of a lopsided game, particularly Frankfort freshman Blake Miller, who came off the bench to score seven points, much to the delight of the Frankfort faithful, the Frankfort upperclassmen, the watching Detroit U-D Jesuit squad — and even the Eagles at times.

“You see the crowd out there, the community we come from. We’re down by 30 points, and they’re cheering like we’re up. As a coach, I really can’t explain the feeling when you see that. Our younger kids are coming in, and people are cheering like crazy. The other team’s out there, cheering ‘MVP’ for our freshman. As a coach, I’m just beyond happy. The future is going to be bright in Frankfort, and we plan on being back here,” Loney said.

“God, that’s a whirlwind of a game. Nobody really expected us to be here, but these guys worked their tail off all year. They never quit. You guys watched the game out there — no matter how much we were down, they never quit. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for. Set the tone for our program. This is where we want Frankfort to be. These guys did a good job of getting us here, and now these underclassmen see that, and know what it feels like to be here. Set the tone for the whole program.”