ESSEXVILLE, MI – Chris Watz sends a constant message to his team.
If things go wrong, keep fighting.
If they go from bad to worse, keep fighting.
When that theory unfolded before his eyes – at the biggest moment in the biggest game – Essexville boys’ basketball coach Garber knew his message was getting through.
In a clash of arch-rivals hungry for wins – played out in front of a moving crowd on a unique Sunday morning – the Garber Dukes showed their fight in a spirited 63-58 win over John Glenn.
“We were close, but we didn’t finish,” said Watz, in his eighth season at the helm. “They have the same story (in Glenn). So it became a question of which team is going to get that fourth quarter? And it was huge for us to do that.
“Everyone outside the team is only looking at our record, but we know what we want to do. We’ve been in almost every game and we keep telling them to keep their heads up. good to have a W to back it up.
If the Dukes (4-9, 4-5) did turn a corner with the Tri-Valley East win, they can identify the play that characterized their fighting mentality until the end. With the game tied at 49-49 and the roof practically blowing off the Duke Dome with the growing intensity of the cross-river rivalry, senior Hunter Jatczak delivered at just the right time.
He attacked the basket but had his shot blocked by Glenn’s Sean Wesolek. Instead of accepting his fate, Jatczak fought for the ball and fired another shot – which bounced off the edge. Instead of heading the other way, he jumped a third time, collected the ball and this time dropped it into the basket for a hard-earned, challenging bucket and the lead 51-49.
“It was about as big as it gets,” Watz said. “It was a matter of effort and perseverance. We weren’t giving him much help. It was 1v3 and he was on his own, but he kept fighting for it.
It was the biggest bucket of Jatczak’s 17-point performance and illustrated that the Dukes aren’t going easy this season.
“The rookie got me (with a blocked shot) and I missed again,” Jatczak said. “But you have to keep going and keep bouncing back. When I finally got it, I think it gave us a boost.
From there, the Dukes proved they know how to win a close game. Despite losing five single-digit games — including his previous two before Sunday — Garber looked like a balanced group on the stretch.
Jatczak, Breandan Newsham, Cade Wallaker and Jack Mularz combined to make a perfect 10-on-10 from the free-throw line in the final 57 minutes to ice the victory. The Dukes connected 16 of 18 in the fourth quarter and 20 of 26 for the game.
“We had a lot of tough defeats in games that we knew we should have,” Jatczak said. “So we’re just trying to piece together some wins together to build momentum.”
Mularz led Garber with 18 points followed by Jatczak with 17 while Wallaker and Jack Day each scored 10.
“It’s another step,” Watz said. “You have to learn to play when you’re down and when you’re up. It’s all about managing the game. When you come out on top, it’s easier to feel good about the whole process.
Unfortunately for Glenn (1-9, 0-8), the quest for a decisive victory continues. The Bobcats have now dropped six single-digit games this season and have once again been forced to settle for close but not quite.
“As a group, we are above that. We have to get one,” Glenn’s coach Dale Clyde said. “It’s a process and you have to get a win to move forward in the process. It’s hard when you can’t get one to go your way.
“But these guys keep working, and I give them credit for that.”
Glenn got a 20-point performance from sophomore Trevor Hartman and 13 from Brady Rogers. Zanden Facundo and Sean Wesolek each added nine.
The Bobcats made it known early that they were in to play, coming up from an eight-point hole to take a 17-16 lead for a quarter. Glenn led 29-25 at halftime and 39-26 at three as the two teams fought a high-energy battle that matched the electricity in the crowd.
The game built on the legacy of the Glenn-Garber rivalry. Nine of the last 12 games have been decided by less than 10 points. The fact that the JV game was an overtime battle suggests that the dogfight will continue.
Garber travels to Glenn for the second half of the home-and-away series on Feb. 18.
If you want your local high school sports news delivered to your inbox every day for free, Click here and sign up for one of our local sports newsletters.
Pedal-to-metal defense ignites 29-2 run for Garber in win over Glenn
Girls Friday roundup: The Oxford Strong movement makes it a special night
Friday Boys Roundup: Lamenting Those Who Got Away
National Signing Day looks at where Bay City area athletes head to college
Thrown into the pool at birth, Kimble Darbee prepares for the final laps
A team lost a year ago, Clare is suddenly on a 10-game winning streak