Small town team finally hits the big time with a chance to take home a state championship
East Lansing – Morenci coach Jim Bauer has been having a variety of t-shirts printed up for a decade now.
They all have one common thread: A reference to the Breslin Center at Michigan State University and the state’s final four printed somewhere on them.
One of them reads ‘Pathway to Breslin.’
Another rendition was ‘Small town to the bigtime’ with a star going to the Breslin Center.
Well, here they are. It doesn’t get much bigger than this.
The Bulldogs are in the Class D finals for the first time, outlasting previously unbeaten Waterford Lakes, 53-52, in Thursday’s semifinal.
Morenci (24-2), which hadn’t won a regional since 1954, was making its first trip to the semifinals of the state tournament.
"It’s just a life-long dream," said Bauer, in his 10th season leading the Bulldogs. "You do your little hoops camps for the third-, fourth-, fifth-graders in the summertime and you design t-shirts to try and get them to think, you know, it’s possible."
Morenci is one of those one-stoplight towns with a population of just more than 2,000 near the Ohio border. Part of the send-off involved a police car, fire truck and ambulance escorting the team out of town.
"We had five emergency vehicles escort us five miles out of town," Bauer said.
Hopefully, they weren’t needed immediately elsewhere. Then again, many in town made the hour-and-a-half drive up US-127 to come root their Bulldogs on.
"The support that this town continually gives is amazing," Bauer said. "We’re never outnumbered in the stands. That hair-raising sound when our boys were introduced tonight? That’s the excitement. When they were introduced tonight, that energy you felt is what these boys feel at school."
The town isn’t the only thing that’s small-time, either.
The Bulldogs certainly aren’t imposing. Of the eight players that all saw at least nearly 10 minutes of floor time, the tallest is 6-foot-3. Still, all of them find a way to contribute and seven of those eight found the score sheet.
"We’ve been working in the weight room since we were freshmen and we always knew we were going to be the littler group," said junior Alex Thomas, who scored nine of his team-high 19 points in the fourth quarter. "We never grew up with anyone tall on our team. We just learned to play with the shorter kids. It’s just something we’ve learned to play with."
And excel with.
Senior point guard Austin Sandusky, all 5-5 of him, promised Bauer a trip to the Breslin Center three years ago. Morenci’s team knew it was close last season, falling to Adrian Lenawee Christian 44-42 in the district finals.
"Through the years, we started in the fourth grade, and it seemed like every tournament we went to we were in the finals or championship game," Sandusky said. "Every year, coach kept telling us, ‘It’s not for this game. It’s for when you guys are juniors and seniors and playing on the varsity level to try and get to the championship game.’ I knew they wouldn’t say that if they didn’t truly believe it."
Believe it. Here they are.
Sandusky delivered on his promise. And like a certain prophetic coach once told him, Sandusky and his teammates will play Saturday in the state championship game against another undefeated team, Powers North Central (26-0).
Small town, one win away from the big-time.