BY DENNIS CHASE, Sports editor
---- — Traverse City St. Francis coach Keith Haske was passing Flint Beecher coach Mike Williams and his players in the media room Saturday afternoon when he paused to congratulate them.
"You're the best (Class C) team in the state," he said.
The Bucs certainly proved it at the Breslin Center. Beecher took control early, withstood a third quarter Gladiator surge, and went on to claim the state basketball title with an impressive 74-60 win.
No ifs, ands or buts about it.
"I'm very humbled by this entire process, this entire season, by the way our kids performed," Beecher's Williams said. "I'm fortunate to be part of this. We put in a lot of work to get here. We did things the right way. It's unbelievable."
In the interview room, Williams talked about the game, about some personal tragedies that his players have had to deal with, about all the time he's spent mentoring them on life lessons.
"You're looking at some kids who have overcome some things you could never imagine," he said. "For them to make it here is an accomplishment. They set a standard for all the kids in our community that you don't have to act up, that you can achieve, you can be successful."
The fast-breaking Bucs played like state champions Saturday. After St. Francis took a 2-0 lead on a pair of Devin Sheehy free throws — the Gladiators' only lead — Beecher responded with the next 13 points in the up-tempo contest. They took advantage of four consecutive Gladiator turnovers.
Just like that, St. Francis was back on its heels.
"Their (pressing) defense dictated that we needed to push the ball up the floor," Williams said. "That's our game anyway. The faster we play, the better."
The lead mushroomed to 20 at the half. But the Gladiators, to their credit, picked up their game and showed character in battling back in the final 16 minutes.
A Sheehy layup cut the deficit to 12 with 2:06 left in the third quarter. But the Bucs, bothered by St. Francis' pressure, regained their composure and control of the game.
For St. Francis, the loss ended a remarkable 25-3 season. Never before had St. Francis reached the basketball state finals. Haske was hired nearly two years ago after building a stellar program at Charlevoix. The Rayders played in the state finals twice under his watch.
He delivered again, getting his players to develop and believe.
March Madness is all about creating memories. Just ask the guys who led Northport to the Class D state title in 1988. Ask the Glen Lake guys from that 1977 championship season. They still remember everything from their tournament runs. They share a bond that will always unite them. That's the beauty of March Madness.
The Gladiators will remember these three weeks for a long, long time.
"The run was a great experience," senior Sean Sheldon said. "It's something (reaching the Breslin Center) we really wanted to accomplish. We didn't end it the way we wanted. We wanted to come down here and win a state championship for our school. But we were still able to make it to the state finals and compete for it (title)."
Not many teams can say that.