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Steve Emert never thought he’d get to 400 wins, but the basketball lifer has Walled Lake Western girls playing up-tempo, rolling along

By: Matthew B. Mowery, January 8, 2019, 11:20 pm

WATERFORD — Steve Emert is a basketball lifer.

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time on a bench courtside in Oakland County over the last four-plus decades, odds are you probably played against or coached against an Emert-led team at one point or another.

A very select few have done both.

When Waterford Mott coach Michelle Sklar saw her Corsairs get frustrated by the harassing, in-your-shorts pressure applied by Emert’s Walled Lake Western Warriors in Tuesday night’s Lakes Valley Conference game, it gave her flashbacks to her own playing career.

“Oh, yes. We played them on senior night,” she said with a laugh, rolling her eyes at the memory of the Western Lakes Activities Association contest between her North Farmington Raiders, and Emert’s Walled Lake Central Vikings, who would end up in the 1995 Class A finals. “He’s played the trapping style most of the time, when it’s successful. … When we coached against him in districts, they didn’t really play that style, but what I remembered from back in high school, and when he got this job, people were like ‘Oh, he’s going to play like this …’”

The Warriors (7-0, 2-0 LVC) stayed unbeaten with a 64-40 win, pulling away in the second half, thanks in large part to that aggressive trapping defense that got close to its average of 20 steals per game.

That up-tempo pace is a large part of the reason the Warriors have gone 29-2 in Emert’s season-plus at the helm, pushing him over the 400-win mark in Western’s final game of the 2018 calendar year back on Dec. 20.

It’s certainly a number that Emert never thought he’d get to, way back when Sklar was in the opposing uniform.

“No. I don’t think a lot of people thought I’d be around that long,” he laughed. “It just means I’m old.”

And for her part, Sklar never thought she’d coach against Emert — “No. No, it’s crazy,” she said — but also didn’t think she’d see him again after her Corsairs knocked his Oxford team out with a 36-26 decision in the first round of districts in 2016.

“I thought I gave him his last loss,” she said.

So did Emert. He was ready to hang it up for good after five years at Oxford left his coaching record at 372-233 through 605 games.

“I was. I was done. I resigned, and was watching my granddaughter, until I was approached to take the Western girls. And I said I won’t even think about it until I talk to my granddaughter,” Emert said, referring to current Walled Lake Central senior Olivia Emert. “My granddaughter said it was OK.”

He’s coached twice now against his granddaughter — who has a full-ride soccer scholarship to Siena Heights — a different dynamic than when he had his sons, Christian (Olivia’s dad) and Scott, on his own Walled Lake Central teams.

His resignation from Oxford wasn’t the first time he thought his coaching career was done, though. He spent the better part of the 2000s as the city-wide athletic director in Walled Lake, giving up the coaching baton for an administrative role.

At that point, he never envisioned getting to a number like 400 wins.

“I was hoping I would, but I didn’t know when it would happen. And then when I went into administration, they told me I couldn’t coach. I was in administration almost 10 years. I thought ‘There’s no way,’” Emert said. “Then when I retired, my wife said ‘Get out of the house.’ Now I’ve got a shot. And I’m glad I’m doing it with this group, at Western. I started my coaching career at Western (in 1978). … I love the game, so I’m going to be around.”

Given the athletes to pull it off, he’s gone back to his favored pace, pushing the ball up and down the floor.

“I’ve always wanted to get up and down the floor, but the problem is, you have to have the personnel and the depth. Right now, I’m very fortunate that we have 10-12 kids that can play, but the sad part is, seven of them are juniors,” Emert said. “I love that style. That’s the style I want to play. If you think back to the boys, and the ’95 girls that went to the state finals, that’s the style we played. Averaged 70 points per game for the girls, and the boys were over 80. We’re getting there. If we can get to 65 — but look how many layups we missed tonight. If we don’t miss those … but I give credit to Mott. You don’t miss layups unless someone’s there to harass you.”

And the players — who deliberately slowed it down under coach Skip Stevenson, the AP Class A coach of the year in 2017 — love the up-tempo play as well.

“It was not (fun),” said senior Kailee Ford, who has had three head coaches in her four-year career, enjoying the freedom of Emert’s system. “Way more. Because we get to make more passes, and just more intensity. That’s our whole game, just fast-paced and fun.”

To kick start that fast pace, the Warriors drape themselves all over ball-handlers, and try to get a hand on every pass, using their instincts to patrol the passing lanes.

“Good anticipation. Our main goal is to get 40 touches, either touches, steals or anything,” Ford said. “Steals are important. If we don’t have a good steal-type of game, we slow down. That’s not our type of pace.”

And, if you play exceptionally well on defense, Ford noted, you might be given Emert’s ubiquitous baton he carries on the sidelines.

“The anticipation part — we talk about that a lot. That’s what we do well, that’s one of the things we want to do well. As the play goes, we watch how they break our press — and I don’t say anything — they adjust on the floor,” Emert said. “We used five different presses tonight, and that means we’re moving to the next level. When I met with the kids the other day I said, ‘You know what? It’s your team now. We’re at the point in the season, 36 practices in, it’s yours. My job is strictly to tweak everything, show you the little things we can do, but you gotta do it now.’ We’re improving.”

For their part, Sklar’s Corsairs (5-2, 1-1 LVC) knew it was what they were going to face in Tuesdays’ game, and handled it fairly well, breaking it at times in the first half to trail by just six at the break, 30-24.

“They anticipate really well. They put pressure on you, and they just read the passing lanes. That’s the style they play, and they kind of have to, because they’re not very big. When we got the ball down here, and we got it to our post, we were able to finish, but it’s a matter of plays in the backcourt, and a lot of times we talk about making the easy pass instead of the long pass. But we try to skip it, and it goes out of bounds, or they get a deflection, and it ends up turning into two points,” Sklar said. “We tried to come up with the best way we thought we could attack it, and we did score off of it, but we’ve just gotta limit the turnovers, and we know that. That’s part of us having one senior on the team. We just gotta get stronger with the ball, and more confident. At times, we executed really well, and others — a team like this, you turn it over, they’re usually going to convert.”

As often as not, when the Corsairs beat the pressure, it was 5-foot-11 post Mikaila Proctor beating everyone down the floor, en route to a game-high 25 points.

But the Warriors went on an 11-2 run to start the second half, punctuated by a 3-pointer and a four-point play by Sarah Rachiele, who finished with 14 points. Ford scored all 10 of Western’s fourth-quarter points, giving her a team-high 20 points, while Jenna Galecki had 18.

“That’s what they do, they go on runs,” Sklar said. “They’re a good shooting team, and all it takes is for them to get a couple of steals in a row, and then all of a sudden, a five-point lead goes to a 12- or 15-point lead.”