By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Thursday’s first Class D Semifinal would have produced a dream-come-true scenario whichever team emerged victorious.
Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary coach Brian Blaine just didn’t see that being his team when this tournament began.
A District title was the goal. Then the Regional happened. Then the Quarterfinal. And now the Cardinals have no choice but to adhere to the cliche of taking one game at a time – there’s only one left.
MLS earned its first MHSAA championship game berth with a 64-59 win over Engadine, which also was attempting to make the Finals for the first time.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect to make it this far,” Cardinals coach Brian Blaine said, answering the press conference question many an unanticipated contender is asked.
“Yes, because we wanted it,” senior center Rylee Pankow countered. “He’s always telling us you’ve got to push yourself. So (he’s) a little bit of a hypocrite there.”
All kidding aside, it’s been an incredible run – and it’s not over yet. MLS will face either Pittsford or Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in Saturday’s 10 a.m. championship game.
The unranked Cardinals have rattled off nine straight wins to get to 18-9 overall, emerging as the fifth-place team from a Tri-Valley Conference West that produced three Regional finalists and two teams that made Tuesday’s Quarterfinals.
And yes, the math is correct – MLS was .500 when it began this run Feb. 21.
“At the beginning of the season, we started focusing on fundamentals. We knew our conference was pretty tough … and the girls just battled and battled,” Blaine said. “We kept coming together as the season progressed, and now we’ve won (nine) in a row – and I’m just really proud of these girls.”
Engadine, an honorable mention in the rankings, enjoyed a similar run. The Eagles had last made the Semifinals in 2005 and emerged this time from an Eastern Upper Peninsula Athletic Conference that had three teams get votes in the final regular-season state poll. They were shooting to reach the Regional Final – and then they beat league rival Pickford to move on to this week, where they upset No. 8 Crystal Falls Forest Park in the Quarterfinal.
“We are really happy to get this opportunity to play in here. These opportunities don’t come very often, and I think we should cherish them,” Engadine coach Roger French said. “It seems like it’s been two months ago getting to the Regionals, and our goal was to be in the Regional Final game and go from there. And we had a lot of special moments during the season as well.”
The Eagles tried to create a few more late Thursday. The teams were tied at halftime. MLS then led for the final 15 minutes and by as many as 12, although Engadine got as close as four when senior Olivia Vaughn drilled a 3-pointer with 26 seconds to play. A final 3-pointer to pull the score closer missed the mark.
Both teams made five 3-pointers, but the Cardinals made theirs on only eight tries – while connecting on 48 percent of their field goal attempts overall compared to 37 percent for the Eagles.
Pankow led MLS with 18 points, and sophomore forward Meghan Blaine added 14 including two of those 3-pointers. Junior forward Reese VanLue added another nine points and 12 rebounds.
Vaughn, who went over 1,000 career points during the District, dropped 30 in her final high school game. Junior forward Aubrey Simmons – already the school’s all-time leading rebounder – added 12 points and 11 boards.
“As a senior, obviously you want your last year to be the best. I had high hopes for this team, and after the District, it was ‘All right, maybe we can do something from here,’” Vaughn said. “To make it to Breslin senior year with this team, I can’t even describe it. It’s a great way to end my season, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my career.”
Click for the full box score.
The Girls Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) Michigan Lutheran Seminary’s Rylee Pankow puts up a shot over an Engadine defender Thursday. (Middle) Engadine’s Olivia Vaughn defends the Cardinals' Meghan Blaine.