Steve Gunn column: March Madness, high school style, provides some of the best drama in sports

Hey local basketball fans, wake up! March Madness is underway!

No, not the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, which drives millions of people, including many who aren’t even basketball fans, to fill out bracket sheets and try to win money every year.

That made-for-television event is still a few weeks away.

I’m talking about our own high school state basketball tournaments, which kicked off on Monday with boys districts, and continue next week with boys regionals and girls districts.

It’s exciting to watch true student-athletes – who are not playing for big contracts or endorsement deals or a spot in the NBA draft order – battling like crazy to keep their seasons alive.

There are going to be lot of great games in the next few weeks, right down the road from you, and they are worth checking out.

Anything can happen at tournament time, which we already found out on Monday.

The Fremont boys team, who romped through the regular season with a 19-1 record, was stunned 67-66 in overtime on Monday by Comstock Park, a team that came in with a 6-12 record.

It was a tough way to end the season for a great Fremont squad, but that’s March Madness. Everyone starts fresh, regardless of their regular season record, and everyone is one loss away from going home.

Muskegon’s Billie Roberts tries to make his way through the lane against the Grand Haven defense on Monday. Photo/Tim Reilly

I personally covered a great game on Monday – Muskegon versus Grand Haven at Muskegon High School. It was a classic matchup, with an underdog Grand Haven squad fighting tooth and nail, from start to finish, to knock off the mighty Big Reds and end their 14-game winning streak.

The Buccaneers were clearly not intimidated, and matched the Big Reds, bucket for bucket, almost all the way to the end. Muskegon finally emerged victorious, 64-57, but the outcome was in doubt until the final minute, and everybody who attended got their money’s worth.

The only thing I found curious was the number of fans at the game.

Granted, Muskegon’s Redmond-Potter Gymnasium holds a lot of people, and it was a chilly Monday night. But the gym only seemed about half full, which was strange, considering two very good teams from two of the area’s biggest high schools were going head-to-head on the first night of the tournament.

If you’re a true sports fan (not just interested in winning a bracket pool and a bunch of money), and you don’t pay at least a little attention to the state basketball tournament, you’re missing out.

My favorite recent run was in 2017, when the unheralded Ludington boys team suddenly got hot in the tournament. The Orioles, who didn’t have even one future Division 1 college player on their roster, fought their way into the Final Four, upset a highly-favored River Rouge squad in overtime in the Class B state semifinals, and nearly knocked off New Haven in the finals.

Ludington appeared finished against River Rouge, trailing by nine points with under two minutes left. But the Orioles somehow managed to claw back and force overtime.

The Orioles fell behind again in OT, with two starters lost to fouls, but still pulled off a miracle when sophomore Josh Laman hit a 3-pointer from the corner as time expired, giving Ludington a 51-50 victory and setting MSU’s Breslin Center on fire.

Of course the tournament also has its fair share of heartbreak, which Fremont fans experienced on Monday, and I learned about a long time ago.

I was an 11-year-old fan back in 1974, when my Reeths-Puffer Rockets rolled through the regular season with an undefeated record, and earned the No. 1 ranking in the state in Class B in the Associated Press poll.

Everyone figured the district tournament would be a piece of cake for the Rockets, who ran away from just about every opponent in the regular season. But then they encountered a pesky squad from Muskegon Heights in the Class B district finals, in front of a packed house at L.C. Walker Arena, and those troublesome Tigers somehow managed to beat my Rockets and end their magical run.

I remember leaving the arena with tears rolling down my cheeks. I rooted like crazy for that team all season, and was convinced that a state championship was just a few wins away.

But I recovered quickly, because those same Muskegon Heights Tigers kept winning, and local fans all jumped on the bandwagon. I remember sitting at home with my mother on a Saturday afternoon, cheering like crazy as we watched Muskegon Heights beat Holt in the Class B finals and win the state title that my team was supposed to win.

Nobody would have bet on that Heights squad going all the way. But that’s the unpredictable nature of March Madness, and it’s well worth a few bucks at the door to watch the drama unfold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *