By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – This season isn’t the first that Manchester has looked like an MHSAA championship contender.
Big things were expected a year ago as well – but the Lady Dutch panicked in a Regional Final against Riverview Gabriel Richard and saw their season end that day.
Manchester met Gabriel Richard again in Thursday’s opening Class C Semifinal at the Breslin Center. But this time, and despite an early deficit, there was no panic. Instead, a number of players worked to overcome the early disadvantage as they collectively resolved to earn their first berth in an MHSAA Final.
The No. 3-ranked Dutch held off Gabriel Richard 53-46 and will play for their first MHSAA championship against Saginaw Nouvel at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“With them ending our season last year, and one person showed up, we knew this game we all needed to show up,” Manchester sophomore guard Jesse Manders said. “Even if it’s not scoring, it’s playing defense. … We didn’t start out great, but we overcame that and played a good game all-around.”
That “one person,” senior forward McKenna Erkfritz, had scored 23 of her team’s points in that 39-33 loss to Gabriel Richard last season. She had 19 points, 10 rebounds and three steals Thursday, but got plenty of help with Manders scoring 16 points and senior Taylor Manders adding 11.
Total, Manchester (26-1) outrebounded Gabriel Richard 38-30 and forced a share of 23 Pioneers turnovers.
“They know they can get it done. We always knew the potential this group could grow into, and I knew from this summer that this is where we wanted to be,” Manchester coach Cori Kastel said.
“Our District Final (57-42 over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep) was a very tough game and probably some of the best defense we’ve seen all season. But when we were able to handle that, it gave us a confidence boost. Our Regional (58-51 over Adrian Madison) was the first time in a long time we were playing from behind, and we’re not used to that. That’s what broke us last year. But this year we have more veteran players … and they weren't going to let that happen again.”
Gabriel Richard – also seeking its first championship game berth – jumped out to an eight-point lead just five minutes into the game, and still led by a basket two minutes into the second quarter before Taylor Manders drilled a 3-pointer to give Manchester a 10-9 lead.
The Pioneers (16-8) briefly regained the advantage, 27-25, with 3:44 left in the third quarter. But 10 of those turnovers came during the final 12 minutes, thanks in part to Manchester’s stingy pressure.
“I guess the purpose of the press is to make teams you’re pressing make mental mistakes, and that’s what we did. We over-thought it, and the turnovers affected the way we played and took us out of our game a little bit,” Gabriel Richard senior guard Ashley Henderson said.
“I think we had a lot of turnovers too because a lot of girls had never played in this big of a game before. They were nervous, and I think that adds onto it too.”
Henderson finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and three steals.
As well as earning its first championship game berth, Manchester is playing during the season’s final week for the first time.
“They have confidence in themselves, their teammates and our coaching staff. Not just one person is going to lead us to victory,” Kastel said. “We had an off shooting night, and we persevered. We buckled down, our defense held us in the game, and now we’re playing for a championship.
“We've played here once. Now it’s not new. The newness has worn off. We know we belong here."
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PHOTOS: (Top) Manchester guard Taylor Manders brings the ball upcourt on a fastbreak during Thursday's Semifinal win. (Middle) Gabriel Richard sophomore Casey Lyons works to get around Manders on the way to the basket. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photo.)