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Mio’s youth quickly gains experience, confidence; Thunderbolts defeat Central Lake, 61-40, in a Class D region semifinal

By: Tom Markowski, March 12, 2018, 9:52 pm

Traverse City – Drew Hess is a freshman guard at Mio-AuSable, so most, outside of Mio and other small towns like Hillman, have never heard of him.

That’s all right. Time will change that. Hess is just beginning to make his mark.

Hess scored 22 points on Monday, equaling his average, and Mio wore down Central Lake for a 61-40 victory in a Class D regional semifinal at Traverse City Central.

Mio (17-6) will play some old friends, No. 2-ranked Hillman (23-0), in the regional final on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Hillman defeated Suttons Bay (11-13), 71-62, in the second semifinal. Hillman trailed 13-9 after the first quarter then outscored Suttons Bay 27-12 in the second.

For those younger fans out there, the Mio basketball program likely won’t convey greatness or a strong tradition. The last time Mio won a regional game was in 2002. The Thunderbolts would go on to win a regional title that season.

But there was a time when the Thunderbolts were as good as any in this class. Mio is the home of one of the most prolific scorers in state history in Jay Smith. Smith’s 2,841 points in a career is a state record. His 952 points during the 1978-79 season has Smith third on the all-time list.

Mio won the Class D title in 1989, when Dennis and Mike Kann, the Mio’s current coach, were the stars on the team. Kann finished fourth in the Mr. Basketball voting that season. Mio reached a state final in ’98. The Thunderbolts reached the quarterfinals Smith’s senior season and Mio was a semifinalist his junior year.  

Hess is well aware of Smith, his accolades and who he is.

“Yeah, I know him,” Hess said. “One of his best friends is my trainer. I see (Smith) now and then.”

Kann has a young team, including Hess. Freshman Brennon Mills also starts. And there are two sophomores in the starting lineup, Brendan DeFlorio, and River Waisanen.

Despite this lack of experience, Mio plays with poise and its defense keys its offense. And its offense isn’t too bad, either. Mio made 10 3-pointers in the game, four by Hess.

“Our offense was working well,” Hess said. “We were making our shots. Some of us have the green light (from the 3-point range).

“This is what we’ve done all year. We play man-to-man all the time. I think we played zone once.”

Mio never trailed and led 16-7 after the first quarter. Central Lake (13-11), playing in its first regional since 2010, cut the lead to 18-17 on a basket by Gavin Mortensen with 4:33 left in the half.

A basket by Ty Modgling increased the lead to three points and Mills’ 3-pointer gave the Thunderbolts a 23-17 lead. Mio ended the half on as 9-0 run and led 32-19.

Mio played in the second quarter, and Hess didn’t score. This team has balance and is unselfish.

“We’re definitely a defensive-minded team,” Kann said. “That’s what we work on in practice. Being a young team, I knew we’d struggle at times. But I knew deep down we could get to this level of play. Yeah, we’re talented but it’s more than that.

“They’ve got the green light to shoot it. We’re not just one-dimensional. We’re so young, there’s never a dull moment out there.”

DeFlorio added 15 points and Waisanen had 12. Modgling, one of two seniors on the team, led the Thunderbolts with nine rebounds and he had seven points.

It’ll be a challenge against Hillman, one of the top programs in this class over the past six or seven years. In 2015 the Tigers reached a quarterfinal. This season many expect a trip to the Breslin Center for them.

Hillman defeated Mio twice this season, 68-49 and 52-28. The first game, played on Jan. 4, was a three-point game early in the fourth.

“You’re going to get pressure from Hillman,” Kann said. “We’re where we want to be. To get a regional win is great but we’re not satisfied yet.”