Favorite? Underdog? Hard to tell when powerhouses Westwood, Lake City clash in MHSAA Division 3 quarterfinals tonight in Gaylord
“I keep telling the girls that thousands of teams wish they were still playing right now.” — Kurt Corcoran, Westwood head coach, on balancing pressure with enjoyment of playing in
ISHPEMING — Their status as the favorite or the underdog was the question asked to Westwood High School girls basketball head coach Kurt Corcoran in a phone interview with The Mining Journal on Monday afternoon.
That question was in regard to his team’s MHSAA Division 3 quarterfinal game against Lake City to be played at 7 o’clock tonight in Gaylord.
The teams share impressive records with a combined three losses between them. The Patriots sit at 24-1 while Lake City is 21-2.
Corcoran brushed that question aside, leaving the answer to be discussed and debated among fans and media alike.
Every team at this stage of the tournament can be considered a favorite. The Patriots were one of, if not the top girls team in the Upper Peninsula all season.
Westwood didn’t make it this far by mistake, and Corcoran is simply trying to prepare his team for an unfamiliar opponent and keep his players relaxed.
“I’ve been telling the girls rather than over-analyzing and overthinking, let’s just focus on what got us here,” he said. “It’s about focusing on fundamentals, going back to basics, playing our sets and playing our defensive style. We need to do what got us here in the first place.
“This is kind of the life of the tournament. You’re playing teams you’ve sometimes never heard of, never seen play and you don’t have any common opponents with them. We did manage to scrounge up a few films on Lake City, though.”
Lake City is located about 10 miles northeast of Cadillac and about 75 miles from tonight’s game site in the northern Lower Peninsula.
Found in Corcoran’s film files is the Trojans’ 6-foot-2 junior Rylie Bisballe, a verbal commit to Grand Valley State University.
She is an offensive threat, with the ability to post double digits in points every night. The Patriots will look to contain her above all else.
“It’s kind of similar to our Charlevoix game,” Corcoran said. “We’ll have to key Bisballe and make somebody else beat us. I also believe Lake City has a better supporting cast than Charlevoix did, too.”
Westwood topped Charlevoix (19-3) 47-29 on Wednesday to claim its first regional title since 2008.
Lake City defeated Hart (13-11) 47-25 on the same night for its first regional crown in 43 years. Lake City won the Class D state title in that same season of 1976.
Bisballe finished with 12 points and seven rebounds for the Trojans versus Hart, while another player to watch in tonight’s contest, senior Makayla Ardis, had nine points and six boards. It was sophomore Olivia Bellows leading the way for Lake City, though, with 17 points and five rebounds.
Corcoran appears to be correct when it comes to the Trojans having a solid supporting cast.
The Patriots also have depth of their own, however, with the threats of junior guards Madi Koski and Tessa Leece leading the charge.
Westwood has also seen the emergence of freshman forward Natalie Prophet, a late-season junior varsity call-up who has provided even more offensive depth for the Patriots to go with Koski, Leece, junior forward Karlie Patron and sophomore guard Emily Nelson to make up a potent starting five.
Westwood can also rely on several bench players, including junior center Saadiqah Gardner, sophomore center Ellie Miller, freshman forward Jillian Koski and freshman guard Mallory Leece.
Corcoran said the versatility of his team complements its offensive leaders well.
“Obviously to beat this Westwood team you need to stop Madi and Tessa first and foremost,” he said. “Negaunee tried it in our district game and Natalie went off for 17 (points) while Karlie had 12. We’re much more than a starting five and that’s what makes us dangerous.
“We’re so much deeper that we can rely on our bench. I’m not sure if that’s the case with some of these teams we’ve been playing or not.”
Corcoran also believes his team has some extra weight on its shoulders, with all of the Upper Peninsula behind them after a controversial and devastating end to Iron Mountain’s boys state title run over the weekend.
“That makes us want to bring a state championship back over the Mackinac Bridge even more,” he said.
The Patriots girls last won a state title in 2003, defeating Michigan Center 62-27 in the Class C title game.
The team has been enjoying its run, but it doesn’t come without emotion either.
“We’ve been trying to balance excitement, anxiety, stress and the gravity of the situation,” Corcoran said. “We’re trying to balance all of that with playing freely, having fun, living in the moment and sort of being in this small community spotlight.
“We want to be nervous, but we don’t want to be scared. Some former alumnae from the 2003 team have written the girls a few letters of advice and support; trying to tell them about some of the emotions they might feel in the next week if we continue to win.
“I keep telling the girls that thousands of teams wish they were still playing right now. I’m trying to keep that in their minds that not everyone gets these opportunities.”
Win or lose, Corcoran and his players are humbled by the community support. The team was scheduled to depart for Gaylord at 9 o’clock this morning with police and fire escorts. Four fan buses are set to follow.
“I just want to extend a huge thank you to the community,” Corcoran said. “The amount of support has been overwhelming. We feel small-town famous. The girls are enjoying it, I’m enjoying it and none of it is possible without community support.”
Email Ryan Spitza at firstname.lastname@example.org.