By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Saturday’s Class D Final at the Breslin Center lined up to finish with another celebration for Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes, and one that would be etched into MHSAA history as the Lakers aspired for a fourth-straight title.
But St. Ignace also has been a regular in East Lansing the last four seasons. And the Saints had a little bit of history to contend with as well.
St. Ignace, owners of three MHSAA titles, had never finished a season perfect – until Saturday, when the Saints outlasted the Lakers for a 59-44 win to finish this winter 27-0.
“I kinda had a little worry there because we’ve never been a state championship team with an undefeated season,” St. Ignace senior Sarah Cullip said. “We’ve always had that pain of a loss, and we didn’t want that to happen again. We had a lot of inspiration from outside ourselves, and even within ourselves, I think.”
St. Ignace entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press’ Class D poll, while Our Lady (21-5) was No. 9. This was the Saints’ fourth straight trip to East Lansing; they made the Class C Semifinals a year ago, beat Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett for the title in 2011 and lost to Flint Hamady in overtime in the 2010 Final.
In fact, St. Ignace was the only team in East Lansing this weekend that could match Breslin experience with the Lakers. Cullip played in her seventh tournament game at MSU, while senior Morgan LaVake and juniors Kelley Wright and Emily Hinsman all played in their fifth Saturday.
Coach Dorene Ingalls has coached all four champions during her 14 seasons running the program.
“Any time you win, it’s like the first time,” she said. “It’s a new group, with different reasons, different themes. It’s just like the first time. It’s been a journey. We’ve all grown together. I’m just thankful.”
Waterford Our Lady finished 21-5 and 88-19 over the last four seasons. Seniors Lexie Robak and Ava Doetsch started for all four of those teams, and in all four Breslin championship game appearances.
For much of Saturday’s game and especially the start, it looked like they and their teammates would join Flint Northern’s 1978-81 teams as the only ones to win four straight MHSAA girls hoops titles.
The Lakers opened in a fullcourt press that forced four straight turnovers to start the game. Robak hit two 3-pointers and senior Jessica Parry completed a three-point play as Our Lady jumped to a 9-5 lead a little more than five minutes in.
But St. Ignace soon figured out the press – and responded with a similar strategy that eventually would lead to the Lakers’ undoing.
A few plays in particular got Ingalls thrusting a fist in the air. The first came on the last shot of the first quarter. The Saints broke the press, and Wright found Cullip crossing to the basket behind the defense for an easy lay-in. St. Ignace ended the first quarter up 15-12.
The next came 3:35 into the third quarter. Hinsman broke through the defense, scored, was fouled and finished the three-point play while Ingalls gave an approving nod from the bench. Those points pulled the Saints within one of the lead, and Hinsman’s bucket a minute later gave them their first lead since the first minute of the second quarter.
“They’re good at what they do. They’re here for the fourth time for a reason,” Ingalls said of Our Lady’s defense. “We were trying to get Emily to come to the middle and execute strong. When we tried to get up the right side and pass it up the right, it didn’t turn out well for us.
“The kids were able to keep their composure, keep at it.”
And turn the tide. Riding a matchup zone with halfcourt pressure, St. Ignace made it 38-38 with a quarter to play and then opened the fourth on a 9-0 run. The Lakers never recovered.
For the game, St. Ignace had only 11 turnovers to Our Lady’s 27, and scored 30 points off those turnovers to Our Lady’s 11 after takeaways.
“Looking at my players, they didn’t necessarily look open. That was the pressure they were putting on me,” said Doetsch, who mostly ran the point. “I didn’t have to pass, but nobody looked open. So it made it difficult to get the offense going.”
Hinsman finished with 20 points for St. Ignace, with Cullip adding 16 and grabbing nine rebounds and Wright scoring 10 and dishing five assists.
Lexie Robak led the Lakers with 25 points, including six 3-pointers – which tied her for second-most in an MHSAA girls basketball championship game. Parry added 10 points and six rebounds.
She also played in all four championship games, and the rest of the team’s six seniors – Brianna Topolewski, Marina Anderson and Haley Howell – all made their second title game appearances Saturday.
“My shot was going in, so I was kinda happy throughout the game. We had a good four years,” Robak said. “I just wanted to come out and have fun, and that’s what I did. It was a good last game with these cats.”
“That’s what it comes down to,” Our Lady coach Steve Robak agreed. “Of course, we all wanted to win. We left our hearts out there in the fourth quarter, gave it everything we had. At some point there are some tears, and you’re upset. But I feel a lot like Lexie; while it’s sad we didn’t win, and I wish we’d done some things differently, I’m just so proud of this group.
“To get here four times in a row, and win three, I don’t know how you could feel too much sadness for too long.”
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PHOTOS: (Top) St. Ignace players celebrate during the final seconds of their Class D championship game win over Waterford Our Lady. (Middle) St. Ignace's Sarah Cullip (left) attempts to drive around the Lakers' Ava Doetsch. (Top photo by HighSchoolSportsScene.com; middle photo by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)