• Michigan

Momentum from historic fall has spilled over to basketball, as Corunna goes to 9-0 for first time in recent memory

By: Matthew B. Mowery, January 12, 2019, 12:15 am

LINDEN — Like any coach, when the seasons overlap and players get a late start, finishing up with their last campaign, Corunna girls basketball coach Ron Birchmeier was champing at the bit to get things started by the time the second week in November rolled around.

Still, he understood why he was holding practices with a skeleton crew, as a handful of players finished up their fall sport.

After all, the missing players were only helping guide the Cavaliers volleyball program to its first-ever appearance in Battle Creek, before falling in the semifinals to No. 1-ranked Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.

He was just dreaming of similar success.

“At the beginning of the season, while we were still in volleyball, I thought there was the opportunity that we could be that good. There’s still a long way to go, though. We’ve got some tough teams coming up that we’ve gotta be ready for, but we thought it was a possibility early on, just because of our experience,” said Birchmeier, who admitted the start to the preseason was a bit rough. “We were missing kids. … And then we were cutting practices short, 15-, 20-minute practices, because we were going to watch them play. There were a couple of practices that we didn’t really have with anybody, because we had a snow day in there. We lost eight practice days, we figure. So it’s probably a little bit more surprising the way our start’s been, as it was.”

The Cavaliers went to 9-0 on the season — for the first time in recent memory — thanks to Friday’s 69-43 win over Lake Fenton, remaining perfect in Genesee Area Conference Red Division action at 4-0.

“Since I’ve been here, never (started 9-0). This has been a year of a lot of firsts for us. … It’s a season of firsts: This is the first time we’ve beaten Goodrich ever, since I’ve been here. It’s the first time we’ve beaten Hamady on their court. I got my 100th career win last game,” Birchmeier said. “It’s been the first time we’ve gotten state-ranked since I’ve been the coach, too, and that was something the girls really wanted to do for our community. There’s a lot of firsts for us this year, and the key as we go along, is just staying focused, and try to enjoy the moment.”

There’s been plenty to enjoy, especially with this same core of athletes, most of them now in their senior years.

Senior point guard Madison Birchmeier was an outside hitter for the volleyball team, while junior Danielle French and freshman Ellie Toney — both posts for hoops — were middle hitters for volleyball. Junior Hannah Hollister, who’s been sidelined with an injury since the volleyball season, and just began to practice this week, was another outside hitter.

Senior guards Katelyn Feldpausch and Leah Clough scored on the Corunna cross country team that finished fourth at regionals, while senior Ila Tuller also ran.

The success didn’t just start this fall. It rolled over from last spring, when the Cavaliers won a track and field regional, finishing seventh at the Division 2 meet.

Hollister scored in both hurdles events, while Birchmeier, volleyball hitting star Elizabeth Norris, setting star Lexi Mort and Hollister teamed up to score in the 400-meter relay. Feldpausch (distance) and Lauren Cnudde both contributed on that squad, as did post Mariah Dunkin, who finished seventh in the discus.

“That senior group is just — (successful) in every sport. For the community and the school, we’ve just gotta be — I don’t know if thankful is the right word, but we’ve gotta appreciate what they do for us. It helps us,” Ron Birchmeier said. “The chemistry. A lot of these girls are seniors, and have played together for a long time. They just trust each other, and know what each other are doing. That’s really what we’re seeing out there.”

The Cavaliers’ basketball team went 16-7 last season, winning a district title before falling to Birch Run in the regional semifinal.

This season has had a much more promising start.

The Cavaliers won 44-37 at Laingsburg, traditionally a hard place for them to get a win, then went to Goodrich on Dec. 11 and did the unheard of — for them, at least — knocking off the perennial powerhouse Martians with a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Madison Birchmeier.

“I thought we’d get a little bit of bump in confidence from a win like that,” Ron Birchmeier said, “but I wasn’t sure it would last this long.”

Three days later, the Cavs went on the road again and beat Hamady — a ranked Division 3 squad — by a 69-58 margin in overtime.

That’s earned Corunna a ranking in Division 2: No. 9 by the Associated Press voters, and No. 4 in the State Champs Network rankings.

Those kind of things can be double-edged swords: They’re nice and shiny to look at, but they also put a target on your back, and get every opponent up for you.

On a five-game win streak of their own entering Friday’s game, dating back to an early-season loss to Hamady, the Lake Fenton Blue Devils started talking about the impending matchup with Corunna before Wednesday’s non-conference game against Yale.

“Wednesday, during the day, before we played, apparently some teachers were talking, about them being ranked, and ‘Did you guys know?’ It starts that buzz. Kids say something to me before we started the game, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s take care of the game that we’re in,’” Lake Fenton coach Brian VanBuren said. “Then yesterday, I said ‘Hey, we’ve got a big one, but don’t let the moment be bigger than it really is. It’s still a league game. It’s still just Corunna. They didn’t come in with ‘No. 9-ranked’ on them.’ I think it does put a target on their back, but it does also make opponents have to get up a little bit more. But I think our girls were ready. I don’t think the moment was too big. It was more the fact that we were in it with a team that was better-schooled.”

It also helped that the Cavaliers were vastly bigger than the Blue Devils (6-2, 2-2 GAC Red).

That size advantage bore out in the second half, as the Cavaliers posts — Dunkin (21 points, season-high 17 rebounds, four blocks) and Toney (17 points, 12 rebounds) — grabbed more than half of Corunna’s 50 team rebounds.

That and an 11-2 run to start the second half enabled Corunna to extend a four-point halftime lead, 31-27, to 50-36 entering the fourth.

“Big time. Started to wear us down. … I said to coach (Birchmeier) I think he’s got the best starting five in our league. As the half started play out in the first half, we were getting into that bench a little bit more. Now kids are coming on the floor that are just — they aren’t as polished as the starters. That half was playing out, and we were hanging in there, even though we were having a little bit of foul trouble, they weren’t beating us so badly on the boards. The second half started, and they just imposed their will on us. He’s got four senior starters — that’s hard to deal with,” VanBuren said, noting that the 5-foot-11 Toney isn’t the average freshman. “His freshman, she plays beyond her years. People say she’s inexperienced, well (crap) she’s nine games in, so she’s even more experienced than the average freshman.”

In addition to the posts, Feldpausch finished with 10 points, while Maddie Birchmeier finished one rebound short of a triple double (12 points, nine rebounds, eight assists), constantly sparking the Cavaliers’ up-tempo game by grabbing the defensive rebound, and pushing it up the floor.

“She’s the one that makes everybody just a little bit better, by giving them the ball,” Ron Birchmeier said. “It takes away from her points, to build the chemistry.”

Katelyn Siebert finished with 19 points to lead Lake Fenton.

Corunna has the next five games on its home floor, as it tries to extend its unbeaten streak, with Flint Beecher and Chesaning visiting, before Goodrich (Jan. 25) and Hamady (Feb. 1) come calling.