On a spring-like day in Traverse City where temps reached 80 degrees, St. Francis made sure the winter season would last another week.
The Gladiators captured their first regional title since 2006 on Wednesday with a 68-52 victory over Clare in the Class C finale at Traverse City West.
"Our basketball tradition, while we've been great in the regular season, our tournament play hasn't been great," St. Francis coach Keith Haske said. "We talked to the kids about leaving a legacy behind. Michigan State calls it footprints in the sand. Our kids want to do that, so it's exciting that we can."
"It's great," said Gladiator senior Sean Sheldon, a three-year starter on varsity. "In the past, we had a lot of teams that were projected to go far, but we looked ahead a little bit. What we had in our heads this year is that we've got to take one game at a time. That's what we've been doing. We fell behind (on Monday) against Boyne City and came back and won. We fell behind again tonight right at the start and had to fight back."
St. Francis (23-2) moves on to play Negaunee on Tuesday at Petoskey in a Class C quarterfinal. Negaunee beat Iron Mountain 47-46 on Wednesday to advance.
Clare (22-2) exploded to a 7-0 lead in the first 90 seconds of the game and made it 18-8 in the first quarter. The Gladiators were able to claw back by attacking the basket — especially Kody Kleinrichert. The junior center scored eight of his 11 points in the first half, all off free throws.
"You've just got to take it straight through them and make your free throws," Kleinrichert said. "We needed some kind of boost. It was a physical game and you just had to take it to them."
While the Pioneers had the size to match the St. Francis post players, the Gladiators dominated the boards all game with a 45-33 advantage.
"Clare likes to run and push the ball," Haske said. "We said if they can't rebound, it's hard to run. I think our kids took that to heart. They really struggled to get out and get any easy looks from the three."
Among the 45 St. Francis rebounds were 23 offensive boards.
"We didn't have a big size advantage, but personally I felt like we wanted it more," Sheldon said. "We were playing really big. Getting boards, getting put-backs, getting fouled and making the free throws. We were fighting around the rim and I think it was a big key to the win."
Kleinrichert pulled down an offensive rebound and was fouled on the shot with 1:50 left in the first half. He made both free throws for a 28-26 Gladiators lead — which they never gave up.
While Clare stayed close the whole way, the Pioneers struggled to make shots as the game progressed.
"We only hit (three) threes," Clare coach Rob Wise said. "We're relying on seven or eight threes. And they just weren't falling."
Free throws also weren't falling for the Pioneers, who finished 7-for-19 from the line. That included 0-5 in the fourth quarter.
"I thought our missed free throws were really the difference," Wise said. "They got us out of our flow in the game. We couldn't hit a shot."
Wise said for a team that shoots 62 percent from the free-throw line, Wednesday's game was "a bad night."
Sheldon took over in the second half with 15 of his game-high 21 points. He also had 14 rebounds and a couple of blocks.
"Sheldon was a little too much for us inside," Wise said. "Our plan was to keep him outside. He might have taken one three the whole game. It's a credit to him. They knew where the mismatch was and our guys played their butts off on him, but eventually he wore us down."
"We played a little chess match with that to try to get Sean the ball at the basket," Haske said.
Devin Sheehy had 14 points for the Gladiators while Kleinrichert and Byron Bullough each added 11 points. Bullough also had 11 rebounds.
For Clare, James Wezensky had 17 points, five rebounds and five blocks. Taylor Ardis scored 13 — including 11 in the first quarter.
While St. Francis won by 16 points, the game was much closer until the end. The Glads led 46-44 going into the fourth quarter and quickly padded it to 51-44.
Wezensky's post move with 3:28 left cut it to 57-50, but St. Francis closed out the game on an 11-2 run.
Now, St. Francis turns its attention to Negaunee on Tuesday with a trip to the Breslin Center for the state finals on the line.
"We'll see what we can dig up on them," Haske said. "Great venue in Petoskey, so we're excited."