EAST LANSING – After falling in the first week of the MHSAA tournament last season, there was no way Traverse City St. Francis was going to look ahead to the end of March this winter.
But riding the bus to Breslin Center on Thursday, the reality of this weekend hit senior Sean Sheldon.
The Gladiators were 32 minutes from reaching their first MHSAA boys basketball Final. And now, they’re only 32 more from winning their first championship.
St. Francis earned that opportunity with 63-54 win over No. 8 Shelby in the second Class C Semifinal. The Gladiators will face Flint Beecher in the noon championship game Saturday.
“Last year, we got out of tournament pretty early. It was a big disappointment for us,” Sheldon said. “We looked ahead a little bit, kinda at what we could do. … Now we’re in the Finals, and now 32 minutes from holding up the first ever state title for our school.”
This was St. Francis’ third Semifinal appearance. The Gladiators (25-2) had never before advanced, losing in their last appearance, in 2006, by 29 points to Saginaw Buena Vista.
St. Francis had high hopes last season. But Elk Rapids ended those abruptly in the District Final.
This time, the Gladiators beat all three of their District opponents by at least 31 points, and two more after that by at least 11 before coming up against Shelby – which was making its first Semifinal appearance since 1972, when Tigers’ longtime coach Rick Zoulek was in middle school.
“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking that was a goal of mine,” said Shelby’s David Beckman, Jr., who with Jeremiah James was a four-year varsity player. “It just happened to be the 50-year anniversary, and we actually made that happen. We had 13 guys make that happen.”
And they nearly advanced to their first Final since that same season.
No matter how much St. Francis surged, Shelby hung around – and took a 45-44 lead with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. The Gladiators held just a one-point lead with 5:58 to play.
“You could feel the momentum coming back our way, and we had a few breaks go against us. A couple mistakes. We missed a couple of shots, a turnover here and there,” Zoulek said. “It was really close. It makes you realize how close you really are to being in that final game. Just a couple of plays.”
Some of them came from Sheldon, who scored six of his 16 points over the final six minutes. The Tigers also made just 4 of 11 shots during that time and had three turnovers. They did well breaking St. Francis’ fullcourt press, but struggled to finish at the other end.
Beckman finished with 17 points and James had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Shelby (24-3).
Three others scored in double figures for St. Francis – senior guard Devin Sheehy led with 18 points (and seven assists), while senior center Michael Jenkins added 14 points and sophomore guard Byron Bullough had 11. Sheldon, who has signed with William & Mary, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
While the basketball championship game is new ground for St. Francis, winning at this level is not—the Gladiators have won six MHSAA football championships over the last 21 seasons.
It’s definitely a football school by reputation. And that success was a big reason basketball coach Keith Haske took the hoops job before 2010-11 after leading multiple Charlevoix teams to Breslin.
“One of the reasons I was excited about going there was because of football. The kids have the mentality they can be state champions,” Haske said. “When I walked in the first day of practice, I had a group of kids who said that because of football, we can be state champs here. That’s a huge factor, and I don’t think people realize that. Because not only do that believe that, but they put the work into it.”
PHOTO: Traverse City St. Francis' Sean Sheldon had 16 points and 12 rebounds in Thursday's Semifinal win. (Photo courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.