By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Taylor Manders placed a hand on each side of her head Saturday, not entirely sure what to say when her sister Jessie ran up and gave her a huge hug.
A few seconds later, they and their teammates would celebrate the first MHSAA Finals championship in Manchester High School history.
Manders’ speechlessness probably had something to do with simple joy – before this season, Manchester had never even played in a Quarterfinal. There might’ve been some disbelief in there too after a start that made this look early like a Saginaw Nouvel win going away.
And don’t forget a little anticipation. The Lady Dutch had built for this season throughout Manders’ high school career and improved throughout. This winter they picked up a final edge, and it might’ve been the difference-maker in a 57-52 championship game win over the Panthers.
“When I was a freshman, we had a pretty good team. But we lacked chemistry. Sophomore year definitely was a rebuilding year,” Manders said. “Junior year, we were there. But we didn’t have the mental (side). This year we gained all the mentality. The biggest difference was our mentality in us being so strong this year.”
Manchester finished 27-1, its only loss to Class A Semifinalist Dexter. The Dutch entered postseason play ranked No. 3 in Class C, while Nouvel was No. 4.
Along the way the last three weeks, Manchester also eliminated No. 2 Niles Brandywine and two more teams that had received votes in the final Associated Press poll, Ypsilanti Arbor and Adrian Madison.
The Dutch knew how to beat strong teams. But the good news Saturday is they also knew how to climb out of a deficit.
Manchester had gotten down early against Michigan Center in the Regional Semifinal and trailed Riverview Gabriel Richard by eight just minutes into Thursday’s eventual seven-point win. This time, the Dutch found themselves down 14-2 to Nouvel with less than a minute to go in the first quarter.
“The thing is, we’ve seen more pressure defense before. … We just weren’t moving to the seams they gave us,” Manchester coach Cori Kastel said. “We were forcing things. We weren’t patient. And when we try to force and make things happen, that’s when we fall apart instead of maintaining our composure.”
But where other teams might have, Manchester didn’t lose it.
Nouvel had eliminated two top-10 teams during the tournament, including No. 1 Reese. The Panthers closed out a number of elite squads throughout the season.
The Dutch didn’t become the last.
Nouvel outrebounded Manchester 12-4 during the first quarter; Manchester outrebounded Nouvel 31-16 the rest of the game. Nouvel shot six free throws and made two during the first quarter, while Manchester didn’t have an attempt. Nouvel made two free throws on seven tries the rest of the game; Manchester made 17 of 21.
“Somehow, offensively, we really struggled. We weren’t executing the way we did in the first quarter. For whatever reason, we just lost that flow in our offense,” Nouvel coach Kris Hengesbach said. “And then, coupled with them making big 3-point shots, when we did make a stop they’d get an offensive rebound and put it back in. That did us in.”
“We didn’t play like we were down either. We were just playing our game,” said Dutch senior center McKenna Erkfritz, who had game highs of 22 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. “When we had a chance to push the ball, we pushed the ball. We really composed ourselves. We used what we’ve been using all season, and it worked for us.”
When Manchester took its first lead of the game on an Erkfritz jumped with 2:48 to play in the third quarter, more than a thousand maroon-clad fans in Breslin’s northeast corner erupted.
The Dutch pushed the lead to 35-32 by the end of the quarter. And only a jumper by Nouvel senior Taylor Hengesbach with two seconds to play brought the final margin back to five.
She finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists in her final game of an all-state career playing for her mother Kris. Junior Rachel McInerney added 15 points and six rebounds.
“Our student body is really close; our school is kinda like a family, and I knew they were still proud of us in the end even though we didn’t come out with the number one trophy,” Taylor Hengesbach said. “They’re still proud of us, and I’m still proud of our team.”
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PHOTOS: (Top) Manchester players prepare to embrace senior McKenna Erkfritz during Saturday's medal ceremony after winning their first Class B championship. (Middle) Lady Dutch senior guard Taylor Manders finished with nine points, five rebounds and six assists. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)