Cinderella Braves triumph

GLADSTONE – The Gladstone Braves are district champions, and they are a living, breathing cinderella-story.

Before Wednesday night’s district title game between the Braves and the Menominee Maroons, it was expected to be a dogfight based on the way both teams have been playing. But no one could have expected the nail-biter that would unfold.

Two huge steals in overtime were converted into a pair of Jared Hunter buckets which inevitably led to Gladstone hoisting the Class B district championship trophy in a 64-61 victory.

“Blake (Ballard) is our best ball-handler, and I knew that if he had the ball, they were going to double team him,” Hunter said. “They did, and I cut back-door and was able to hit the shot.”

He said that the way the team was able to prevail even though the chips were down at times says a lot about their mentality.

“I think it shows that we have heart and we’re willing to dig it out,” he added. “We had some tough times during the season, but we stick together. We’re a family, we love each other, and we keep pushing. We just proved that if you work hard, you can accomplish great things.”

The Maroons outscored the Braves 15-7 in the second quarter, and they went into the locker room with a 28-20 lead. But Gladstone turned the tables in the third quarter, getting good looks from the perimeter and unstoppable post-play from Jared Vuksan.

“He was the difference in the game,” said Maroons coach Pete Pericolosi. “We had no one that could control him. We ran three people at him. He’s just an animal down there.”

Vuksan scored a season-high 26 points and pulled down nine rebounds.

“That’s my job, to stay in the post and get easy buckets,” Vuksan said. “I was happy I could do that for our team tonight.”

Gladstone’s 25-point effort in the third quarter put them down 46-45. Overall, the fourth quarter was a defensive battle. It was tied at 55 with 1:14 remaining, and the Maroons held the ball for one final shot. However, it bounced off the rim and the game headed into one extra session to decide the district champion.

“We had our chances,” Pericolosi added. “I give (Gladstone) a lot of credit, they came up with the plays down the stretch.”

The Maroons picked up where they left off, driving their way to the free throw line. They held a three-point lead twice in overtime, but Gladstone simply didn’t give up. Vuksan battled inside to draw contact and hit a free throw to bring it to 60-58. Michael Cretens followed it up with another free throw, and then Hunter grabbed the loose ball to give the Braves a 61-60 lead.

Menominee tied it with 37 seconds remaining, but Hunter managed to get his hands on the ball again, draining another layup to essentially put the game away.

“After that strong third quarter, you could kind of feel it,” said Braves coach Phil Griebel. “We knew we had a chance to win. If we played one good quarter, we were going downstate.”

Griebel added that the ‘run and jump’ play that led to their victory is something they’ve been working on since the beginning of the season, and it ended up turning into a huge win.

“It was a total battle,” he said. “I don’t know how we pulled it out in the end. I’m so proud of these guys, I can’t even explain it right now. This is pretty gratifying.”

This district title avenges two straight years of losing to Menominee in the district opener. The last time Gladstone won a district title was 2010. The same year, they went on to beat Ogemaw Heights in the regional opener, who could potentially be their next opponent.

The Braves (11-11) will face the winner of Friday night’s matchup between Ogemaw Heights (10-11) and Grayling (17-5) Monday night in Grayling.

“If you want to play good basketball, you play it at the end of the year, and that’s what we did,” said Gladstone athletic director Matt Houle. “I can’t be more proud of these kids.”