BY DENNIS CHASE firstname.lastname@example.org
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — MCBAIN — Tears were shed in the St. Francis locker room Thursday night after the Gladiators basketball season came to an end with a 55-35 loss to Shelby in the Class C regional final here.
"We had a great season," senior center Bridget Bussell said. "We're sad it's over."
The Gladiators finished 22-3, sharing the Lake Michigan Conference title with Kalkaska and winning the girls first district title in a decade.
"We're proud of ourselves, we're proud of what we accomplished," senior Lauren Buckel said. "But we were looking for something more. Congrats to Shelby on a great win."
The Tigers, 21-3, will play Houghton in Tuesday's quarterfinal at Petoskey. Houghton defeated Ishpeming 67-36 to win its regional.
Shelby will be making its first quarterfinal appearance since 2004.
Tigers' coach Sarah Wolting played on the team that reached the semifinals 15 years ago.
"That's what we're striving for — get to the Breslin," she said.
Sydney Czurak, a 6-1 senior center, and Abby Rodriguez, a senior point guard, scored 17 points apiece to lead the Tigers past St. Francis.
After a sluggish start — it was 2-2 with just over a minute left in the first quarter — Czurak went to work as the Tigers went on an 18-3 run to take a double-digit lead they would not relinquish. Czurak netted 14 of Shelby's first 20 points.
"It felt good to have a cushion, but we knew we couldn't let up," Wolting said.
The Tigers didn't let up either. It was 32-14 at half and 39-21 after three quarters.
"I thought defense would be the key and we played great defense tonight," Wolting said.
St. Francis struggled offensively all night, especially from the perimeter since Czurak and 6-2 senior Michele Brown effectively controlled the paint.
"Shelby's a very good team," Gladiators coach Mike Knudsen said. "They're athletic and they're big. We didn't have an answer for them.
"We didn't shoot very well. We had opportunities, we had open looks, but sometimes you just have nights like that where they won't go in."
Liza Erickson led the Gladiators with 10 points. Buckel added nine.
Czurak and Rodriguez, meanwhile, accounted for 26 of Shelby's 32 points at the break. Rodriguez hit a couple 3-pointers and beat the Gladiators downcourt for a couple more fast-break layups.
"She's our leader," Wolting said. "She makes things happen."
The Gladiators could get no closer than 15 points in the second half.
St. Francis started four seniors. Altogether, Knudsen will lose six players via graduation.
"I'm proud of this team," Knudsen said. "It's a great group."
For Bussell, it ended another stellar campaign. She was a key on the volleyball team that reached the state finals. For Buckel, she has spring track season that starts Monday. Buckel is the defending Division 4 state champion in the 200 and 400. She was also on the victorious 1600 relay.
"Quite a bullseye on the back," she said.
Still, Buckel hoped to be practicing for Houghton on Monday and instead of reporting for track.
"I was hoping to delay it," she said. "But it's not going to happen."