Following a 1-3 start to the season and then a narrow victory over a below-average East Jackson team on December 19, the Olivet varsity boys’ basketball team seemed headed toward a disappointing 2016-17 campaign.
The highly-touted Eagles were struggling in all areas – offensive execution, defensive discipline, understanding individual roles, and – let’s face it – attitude.
But something clicked over the holiday break for Coach Travis Brown’s squad, which captured the program’s first Class B district title since 2013 when it knocked off Leslie, 59-50, Friday night in the championship game at Eaton Rapids High School.
Olivet, which just two weeks ago claimed a share of the Greater Lansing Activities Conference crown, improved to 17-5 on the season.
“Last night, overall, we played well,” said Brown, who is in his third year with the Eagles. “We didn’t defend as great as we would’ve liked in the first half, but we made some adjustments and made it tougher for Leslie to do what they had success with early in the second half.
“Offensively, we struggled early and late for different reasons,” he added. “Early was due to jitters. Late because we changed our mentality with having a lead and the clock on our side. We wanted to work the clock. Doing so means taking less shots and our guys would rather take shots. Luckily, we hit those shots.”
Olivet’s top offensive threat, senior guard Delbert Redfield, put Friday’s game out of reach when he buried two contested three-pointers late in the contest. The bombs pushed a four-point lead to 10 with just over two minutes remaining and crushed any hopes Leslie had of coming from behind.
Redfield led all scorers with 22 points, 18 of which came in the second half. He also recorded five rebounds, five assists and two steals. Other contributors for the Eagles included senior guard Jake Holzhei with 12 points, junior forward Ryan Wallenberg with eight points, and junior forward Nick Jungel with six points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
By winning, Olivet advances to Monday’s Class B regional tournament at Ionia High School. The Eagles will play Portland (10-12) at 7:30 PM. The other regional semifinal game pits Wyoming Godwin Heights (22-1) against Williamston (19-4) at 6:00 PM.
Coach Brown said the district title and opportunity to compete in a regional tournament is a big deal for his program.
“Having a title like that allows the guys in the program to see a little clearer what we do behind the scenes pays off,” he explained. “The district title was a goal for the guys from the outset and it looked bleak after a 1-3 start. However, the holiday break was huge for us as it allowed us to talk out some issues we were having. So, to come from a dark place and get to a title…that’s pretty special.”
Olivet’s opponent on Monday is a familiar one since the two teams played on February 28, with the Eagles pulling out a 57-54 victory.
“Portland is a well-coached team with guys who play hard,” Brown said. “They are going to give us a big test for sure on both ends of the floor. We did play them once and did eke out a win, but that game will mean nothing on Monday. We expect a hard-nosed Raider team which will fight and claw to get a win. Therefore, we will have to match their effort and surpass it.”
The winners of Monday’s two regional semifinal games will return to Ionia High School for the championship game on Wednesday, March 15 at 7:00 PM.