By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson
And it couldn’t possibly be working out better.
Hackert was all over the court on Tuesday, scoring from inside and out, to lead Ludington to a dominating 69-43 victory over Lake Fenton in the Class B state quarterfinals at Mount Pleasant High School.
Now Hackert and the Orioles will have a chance to play for their ultimate goal – a Class B state championship.
Their final push will begin on Friday in the state semifinals, when they play River Rouge at 7:50 p.m. at the Breslin Center at Michigan State University.
“I can’t even put it into words,” said Hackert, who grew up in Ludington and moved to Kentucky in the seventh grade, before coming home for his senior year.
“Coming home and winning it with these guys, after growing up and leaving but coming back, means the world to me. We deserve this. We worked so hard all season for this. It was our goal to get to state and we did it. I can’t even explain how I feel.”
The victory was also a milestone for Ludington Coach Thad Shank, who has been to the state quarterfinals three different times with the Orioles, but never got to the next level.
Shank said he was happy for his current players, and all the guys who fell just short of making the Final Four in the past.
“I’ve been proud of every team I’ve coached,” said Shank, whose previous teams made the quarterfinals in 2004, 2006 and 2009. “I see all those former players who maybe had the dream of being at the Breslin Center and played their hearts out, but ran into someone better.
“It’s cool to see them all be a part of it and see their excited smiles. We’ve got a special program in Ludington. Ludington basketball means a lot to a lot of people, and it’s just cool to share it with all the people and former players here.”
Ludington’s domination of Lake Fenton began early in the game and never let up.
The Blue Devils, who were making their first appearance at the quarterfinal level, grabbed a 9-5 lead within the first two minutes.
Then Ludington lowered the boom, going on a 15-4 run for the rest of the first quarter to take a 20-13 lead at the buzzer. Josh Laman sparked the Orioles with eight points in the first while Hackert scored seven.
The Oriole eruption continued in the second quarter. They burst out of the gates with a 14-0 run, with was punctuated by back-to-back 3-pointers from Hackert and Sam LaDuke with about three minutes gone in the second.
Ludington had a commanding 41-19 lead at halftime.
The Orioles could barely miss a shot in the first half, hitting 17 of 23 shots. They were also impressive defensively, forcing seven Lake Fenton turnovers in the half, including five in the pivotal second quarter.
“That was a pretty good first half,” Shank said. “Those first four minutes I didn’t know if we’d be able to stop them. I thought we had a good plan overall, but they came out and scored the first four possessions. Then I thought we did a pretty good job of recognizing they were switching on defense.”
Lake Fenton recovered its composure in the third quarter, outscoring Ludington 12-11 to pull within 19, but the Orioles never let them back in the game.
Ludington used its trademark balanced scoring attack to pick apart the Blue Devils.
LaDuke finished with 16 points, Noah Laman had 12, and Josh Laman chipped in 11.
“We just played together,” Hackert said. “We were doubted and projected to lose by 4, but we won by 26. This all goes to Coach Shank, who is the best coach I’ve ever played for. The best coach in Michigan, in my opinion. He prepares us and gets us ready, and this is what happens when you have a coach like him.”
The winner of Friday’s Ludington-River Rouge game will advance to Saturday’s state championship game at 6:30 p.m. against the survivor of the Benton Harbor-New Haven semifinal.
Shank said he will tell his players to relax and enjoy the excitement of playing in the state Final Four this weekend.
“I’ll just tell them to go have fun,” the coach said. “You only live once. We’re going to prepare the best we can for two days and just go and enjoy the experience. If you don’t enjoy it and have fun you won’t be very successful.
“That’s one thing about this group of kids is that they’re pretty poised and I think they’re enjoying it. It would’ve been very easy for them when Lake Fenton scored the first five points in the second half to fold, but they didn’t.”