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No. 9 Central Montcalm rolls past Alma to claim program’s first-ever district championship

By: Matthew B. Mowery, March 8, 2019, 11:15 pm

SHEPHERD — The Central Montcalm athletic administration has never had to deal with this particular problem before: Where, exactly, does one put a district girls basketball championship trophy?

It’s a problem they’re willing to work on over the weekend.

For the first time in school history, a bus full of girls basketball players made the trip back to Stanton with a wooden mitten in tow, claiming the program’s first-ever district crown with a 49-24 win over Alma Friday night.

“It is going to get a special spot, for the first one in history,” Hornets coach Rob Putnam beamed, acknowledging that the banner in the gym will get another quick update soon, as well. “We’re getting some things up there, now. I have a great AD (John Kearney), and he gets our banners up there, quick.”

The Hornets won the Central State Activities Association’s Gold Division title last year, the first conference crown in 34 seasons, then repeated again this year, running the table on the regular season, and running their streak of regular-season wins to 42.

It’s a point of pride for the six seniors that they’ve started a bit of a tradition, putting up numbers on a banner that hadn’t ever been updated in their lifetimes.

“It feels like hard work finally pays off to see that. I mean, it’s not a lot, but it means a lot to us. … Just to show younger generations that it is possible, if you put in the work at an early age,” senior Libby Ledford said. “It’s a huge accomplishment for our team. It feels awesome.”

Friday night’s bus ride back from Shepherd High School — winding down US-127 to M-46, then west to Montcalm County, and down M-66 to the county seat at Stanton, where the population of the school (480 students this year) is one third of the size of the town, as of the 2010 census — was assuredly much different than last year’s post-district bus trip.

Last year, the unbeaten Hornets drove up US-131 to Big Rapids, and came home with a district semifinal loss to the tournament host Cardinals, ending their postseason run after just one game.

“Last year, we went 20-0, went out first round. But this year, these girls have been so focused.

We challenged ourselves this summer — played the Royal Oaks, the St. Ignaces, stuff like that, for this moment. The first one in school history,” Putnam said, admitting last year’s abrupt exit was a ton of motivation. “It was. We did talk about it a lot, and the fact that the regular season means a lot. But we were going to prepare ourselves. We played the (Ypsilanti) Arbor Prep (game), the Kent City (game) — we wanted to challenge ourselves. … You’re not going home if you lose, but we used it as a 20-games to get everything in line, so that we could get to this moment.”

Continuing the regular-season winning streak was far less important than going on a run in the postseason, hence the toughened schedule — both in the summer and the regular season. And still the Hornets didn’t lose, rolling past teams like Carson City-Crystal, Greenville and Grand Rapids Covenant Christian and edging Arbor Prep and Kent City by a total of eight points combined.

Some coaches are nervous when their teams haven’t tasted defeat, but Putnam wasn’t — at least not this time around.

“Last year, I really was, but this year, it was like … it was no big deal. It was like ‘We’re just going to keep playing. If the record comes, it comes. If it doesn’t it doesn’t.’ No big deal. It was never a factor. The girls really didn’t talk about it,” he said. “Just the next day, we’re going to do our thing, and we did.”

That didn’t mean there weren’t nerves. There were.

“Oh, yeah. Of course Rob’s like ‘Oh, I’m not nervous …’ Yeah, we’ve been playing together forever, but I was super nervous,” Ledford said. “I tried not to tell him that, but I definitely was.”

So far, they’ve done what they did in the regular season, beating Shepherd and Alma by a combined 44 points to claim that first-ever trophy.

The No. 9-ranked Hornets (22-0) advance to next week’s regional at Mt. Morris, where they’ll meet Frankenmuth (14-7) in Monday’s second regional semifinal, at 7:30 p.m. No. 2 Freeland (20-2) and No. 5 Corunna (20-2) face off in the early game at 5:30 p.m.

Friday’s game was close for a half, until the Hornets pulled away from the Panthers (16-5) with a 12-0 run, the final 10 of those points to start the scoring in the second half, blowing open a game that had been a 22-13 Central Montcalm advantage headed into halftime.

“They were hungry, for sure. … They had a great run to come out in the third quarter, and we laid an egg, and they kept going,” said Alma coach Scott Apple, whose Panthers didn’t score until 2:11 remained in the third, when Taylor Cleveland split a pair from the line.

“I think most of the credit is to Central Montcalm. They took us out of anything we wanted to do. They put a lot of pressure on us. When we did get good looks, we didn’t miss them, but we didn’t get very many. Their pressure wore on us. They just did a great job. They were the better team tonight. We couldn’t keep up with their speed. …

“We had a chance early, but we couldn’t convert on the offensive end. We knew they were going to score, but we had to score, too, and we couldn’t.”

The Hornets allowed just 33.3 points per game in the regular season, holding every opponent but one — Arbor Prep, in a 67-64 win — below 50, holding teams below 40 points 14 times, below 30 points eight times, and below 20 points twice. Through two playoff wins, they’ve given up just 40 points total.

Even with the Hornets piling up the fouls, the Panthers couldn’t match Central Montcalm’s balanced scoring: Sophomore Alyssa Leister had 11 points to lead Alma, while her senior sister, Hailey, had eight. Nobody else had more than Aaliyah Castillo’s four points.

“We didn’t want it to end this way, no,” Apple said. “We’re disappointed, but we had a good season, finished second in the Tri-Valley. And it’s not like we lost to a poor team — that’s a great team. They’re 22-0 for a reason.”

Hannah Putnam and Ledford had 15 each, while Bailey Vissman had eight and Kiara Wernette seven.

“We got in foul trouble, but they kept battling. We missed some layups, which isn’t us, but a lot of it was just the moment, I think. We got over that hump,” Putnam said. “Those girls worked so hard for four months, and for them to bring it home — it’s a dream come true for me, and I know for them.”