Best of the preps: Saline player delivers on pledge to coach

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Saline’s baseball team, including Sean O’Keefe (back to camera), celebrate after defeating Northville in the Division 1 championship game.

Longtime Saline baseball coach Scott Theisen was trying to hold back tears on Saturday following the Hornets’ Division 1 state championship win over Northville in East Lansing.

Just minutes before the post-game ceremony following the 5-2 win, Theisen was handed a letter by Western Michigan-bound Saline catcher Sean O’Keefe.

O’Keefe had written a letter to himself at the end of sixth grade, saying he hoped his baseball team was still going strong in high school so they could win Coach Theisen a state championship.

O’Keefe’s sixth grade teacher, Lucas Foster, kept the letter, which was written on June 17, 2011, and handed it to O’Keefe just prior to the start of the state tournament.

O’Keefe played every state tournament game this year with that letter in his back pocket, then proudly gave it to Theisen following the championship game, which was played June 17, 2017 – exactly six years after O’Keefe wrote the letter.

“Apparently these kids in the sixth grade had to write a letter to themselves and Sean’s said, ‘Win Coach a state title,’” said Theisen proudly. “He played with that in his pocket, putting it in a plastic bag so it wouldn’t get all wet and sweaty, and he handed it to me after the game. It was pretty special.”

Coach Scott Theisen hands the Division 1 championship trophy to Sean O’Keefe.

O’Keefe watched a lot of great baseball from Saline's teams during his elementary school days. Theisen, who recently completed his 25th year as the program’s head coach, had guided the Hornets to state championship game appearances in 1998, 2008, 2009, 2010 and again last year, only to lose each time. In fact, O’Keefe slugged a home run to give his team a 6-5 lead last year before Warren De La Salle rallied for a 7-6 victory.

O’Keefe said Saline teammates Zach Schwartzenberger, Kellan Huang, Jake Finkbeiner, Ryan Foley and Ted Eppinga played alongside him on his youth travel team in 2011, along with Richard Hovde, who graduated from Saline last year.

“I kept it (letter) in my back pocket every playoff game and then gave it to Coach Theisen,” O’Keefe said. “I’m so happy for him. I’m just glad that he finally gets what he deserves because nobody works harder than him.”

O’Keefe said the experience from last year’s title game loss was a factor in the Hornets’ triumph this year.

“It made us tougher, made us know it’s a long game and that anything can happen and you just have to keep playing,” O’Keefe said. “The experience really helped us and was probably the difference in this game.”

Saline’s long-awaited baseball championship was just one of many memorable moments in the 2016-17 sports seasons.

Top plays

Darius Lundy, left, who made the winning basket, starts the celebration after Romulus defeats U-D Jesuit in a state quarterfinal.

English’s drive and dish for quarterfinal win: Jaren English and Darius Lundy combined to make the winning play to help Romulus dethrone defending Class A state champion U-D Jesuit in a state quarterfinal game at Calihan Hall. English drove the right baseline and from under the basket found Lundy in the left corner. Lundy connected on a 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds left for the difference in a 66-63 victory. Lundy finished with 18 points, making three 3-pointers.

Laman’s triple tops River Rouge in semifinal: Josh Laman of Ludington picked the perfect time to make his first 3-pointer, taking a pass from his older brother Noah and knocking down a long-range shot from the left corner as time expired for the difference in a 51-50 comeback win over River Rouge in a Class B state semifinal. Laman was 0-for-9 during the season on 3-pointers before becoming a hero.

Polfus’ bobble and toss to keep streak alive: Senior guard Seth Polfus got behind Southfield Christian’s defense, caught a long pass from Dawson Bilski, then bobbled it near the baseline before tossing it toward the basket and watching it bounce around the cylinder before falling in as time expired for the difference in Powers North Central’s 84-83 double-overtime victory in a Class D state semifinal. Powers North Central went on to win the state championship to push its winning streak to 83 games.

Scarber’s pick-six in Division 2 state title game: Detroit King senior cornerback Jesse Scarber, known more for his ability on the basketball court, intercepted a pair of passes in the Division 2 state championship game win over Walled Lake Western. Scarber grabbed a tipped pass and returned the interception 56 yards for a TD early in the third quarter to open a 12-0 cushion in an eventual 18-0 win, taking advantage of his teammates’ blocks to reach the end zone.

Sherwood’s steal and layup for upset: Belleville junior guard Kate Sherwood picked the pocket of Clemson commit Camree Clegg and went the length of the floor to make a layup with 16 seconds left, which proved to be the difference in a 54-53 Class A regional semifinal win over Wayne Memorial. Sherwood scored 18 and helped Belleville battle back from a 49-43 deficit with four minutes left, scoring her team’s final six points.

Cody White’s TD toss to top Canton: MSU-bound receiver Cody White was forced to take over at quarterback when Johnny Tracy was plagued by a shoulder injury prior to the season opener. After throwing for 171 yards and four TD in the opening half of a 41-14 season-opening win over Farmington, White was pressured by Canton’s defense in Week 2, still finding a way to find Justin Thomas in the left corner of the end zone for a 29-yard TD with 37 seconds left in a 33-30 win.

Top college prospects

Meghan Beaubien strikes out the final Napoleon batter as Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central wins its third straight Division 3 state softball championship.

Meghan Beaubien, P, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central: The Michigan-bound left-hander lifted her team to its third straight Division 3 state softball championship. Beaubien tossed a two-hit shutout, striking out 15 in a 1-0 semifinal win over Shepherd, then struck out 16 in a 13-1 title game rout of Napoleon after Napoleon cracked 19 hits in its semifinal win.

Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Detroit Cass Tech: Peoples-Jones entered the season as a five-star recruit and is expected to be an impact player during his freshman year at Michigan. Peoples-Jones has outstanding size at 6-3 and 200 pounds and great speed (4.4). He had 60 receptions for 1,064 yards and 17 TD to help Cass Tech win the Division 1 state championship with a 14-0 record. He grabbed a two-point conversion for the difference in a 43-42 regional title game win over Saline, then hauled in a 20-yard TD reception with 25 seconds left for the difference in a 32-28 state semifinal victory over Utica Eisenhower. He had six catches for 118 yards, including TD receptions of 49 and 13 yards, in a 49-20 title game win over Detroit Catholic Central.

Detroit Cass Tech’s Donovan Johnson scores in the Division 1 state title game win over Detroit Catholic Central.

Donovan Johnson, DB, Detroit Cass Tech: Johnson has elite speed, the top 40 speed (4.35) in The Opening last summer. He also was the 60 meters national indoor champion during the winter of his junior year. Johnson is an outstanding defensive back who also rushed for 292 yards and four TD in Cass Tech's 43-42 regional final comeback win over Saline. Johnson, who will play football at Penn State, has the ability to be a game-changer on special teams, as well.

Greg Elliott, G, Detroit East English: Elliott averaged 28 points, nine rebounds and four steals to earn a spot as a Mr. Basketball award finalist. Elliott showed the ability to attack the basket, make the 3-pointer or get the ball to open teammates. Elliott will play at Marquette.

Top quotes

Ky’ren Cunningham scores on an 18-yard TD pass from Caden Prieskorn, giving Orchard Lake St. Mary’s the Division 3 football championship.

“This is crazy man. I’ve played with Ky’ren (Cunningham) ever since I was a little kid. I knew if I just threw it up to him that he’d make a play. I knew he was going to catch it. I just knew it.” 

-- Orchard Lake St. Mary quarterback Caden Prieskorn on his 18-yard TD pass to Ky’ren Cunningham with four seconds left for the difference in a 29-28 Division 3 state title game win over Muskegon.

“I’ve never felt anything like this in my life playing basketball, it’s crazy. In the huddle Coach (Jerret) Smith told (Jaren) English to make a play and I told him I’d be wide open in the corner and go ahead and hit me.”

-- Romulus guard Darius Lundy, who took the pass from Jaren English and knocked down a 3-pointer from the left corner with 2.8 seconds left in a 66-63 state quarterfinal win over defending Class A state champion U-D Jesuit.

“It’s really unexplainable right now, I really don’t know how to put it. All I know is that I’ve been through three high school gyms at Clarkston during my tenure.”

-- Clarkston head boys basketball coach Dan Fife, who earned his first state championship in 35 years with a 75-69 win over Grand Rapids Christian.

“We put a lot of stress on our defensive backs. We thought we could be good up front and we have been all season against the run. I told them (defensive backs) you have to play big this week, you have to, and it looked like they took the challenge.”

-- Detroit King head coach Tyrone Spencer, after his defensive backs had four interceptions in a 18-0 Division 2 state championship game win over Walled Lake Western.

Tom Mach retired after coaching at Detroit Catholic Central since 1976. “I want to be remembered for doing a good, honest job as a football coach,” he said.

“I want to be remembered for doing a good, honest job as a football coach, for developing our players to the maximum and doing things the right way, teaching them things that I think they should know as far as life is concerned.”

-- Tom Mach after retiring as Detroit Catholic Central head football coach after a 370-97 record since his first season in 1976. Mach was the state’s third-winningest coach and led C.C. to more state championship game appearances (17) than any other coach, earning 10 state titles, the last one coming in 2009. C.C. lost to Detroit Cass Tech 49-20 this past fall in the Division 1 state title game.

Top coaches

Dan Cimini, Grosse Pointe Liggett, baseball: After guiding Liggett to four state championships in the previous six years, Cimini decided to move his program from Division 3 to Division 1 to play against the top competition. Cimini's players backed him up, putting together a school-record for wins in a season (33-5), earning a 6-0 state quarterfinal win over Sterling Heights Stevenson at Wayne State. Liggett's dream season ended with a semifinal loss against Saline, ranked No. 12 nationally by USA Today.

Dan Fife raises his first state championship trophy as coach at Clarkston.

Dan Fife, Clarkston, boys basketball: Fife, who played for Michigan in the late ’60s and early ’70s, earned that elusive state championship when Clarkston defeated Grand Rapids Christian 75-69 in the Class A title game at the Breslin Center. Fife is the state’s fourth all-time winningest coach (677-169) in his 35 years as Clarkston’s coach. His wife, three sons and 10 grandchildren were all in attendance to witness his finest moment in coaching.

Frank Orlando, Detroit Country Day, girls basketball: Orlando, in his 50th year of coaching and coming back from a stroke suffered last spring, guided Country Day to a 59-48 Class B state championship game win over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep. It was his 12th state championship in 36 years at the school. He is the state's all-time wins leader in girls basketball with 762. Minnesota-bound Destiny Pitts (17 points) and Country Day saved its best for last, shooting 64.7 percent from the field (22-of-34), making 7-of-12 3-pointers and limiting its turnovers (16) against Arbor Prep’s pressure defense.