EAST LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Catholic Central head coach T.J. Meerman hasn’t forgotten about what happened in the 2017-18 season.
In his fifth season of coaching the Cougars, they had finally reached the final day of the Division II regular season to compete for a state title.
Led by star Marcus Bingham Jr., who went on to play for MSU, it felt like that team had all of the weapons it needed to take home a championship to Grand Rapids.
But Benton Harbor stood in the way. In an absolute thriller of a contest, it was the Cougars falling 65-64 in overtime.
To this day, Meerman still thinks about it.
“Tonight, you could look up and see all 6-foot-11 and a half of Marcus sitting in the front row, he and others from that (2017-18) team were sending us messages all week,” Meerman said. “They wanted us to finish what they started.”
This time, the Cougars (20-0) made sure this one wasn’t going to slip away.
With the game tied at 31 going into halftime, the Cougars went on a 14-2 run to open the third quarter and ended with a 77-54 victory over Pennfield to earn the schools’ first-ever state title.
The run this team went on in the second half wasn’t anything new. For the last four games in the playoffs, dating back to the regional championship against Coopersville, Catholic Central exploded on bursts of scoring in the third and fourth quarters to beat the Broncos, Benton Harbor, Ferndale and now Pennville by double figures.
To junior guard Jack Karasinski, it’s about the standards his team holds themselves to when they start slow in the first half.
“It’s all about regrouping and finding our focus as a team,” Karasinski said. “This game was obviously important because it was the last game for our seniors, so I think our underclassmen and upperclassmen were just playing for each other.”
In the first half, Pennfield gave Catholic Central all it could handle.
After an opening statement made by the Cougars with three consecutive triples, Pennfield ended the quarter on a 13-4 run and tied the game.
In the second, it was more of the same. Catholic Central started hot, but Pennfield kept its composure, led by guard Luke Davis with 12 points, to post a tied-score of 31 heading into the locker room.
Kaden “KK” Brown still led his team in scoring with 11 points in the first half, but felt he wasn’t shooting great.
With encouragement from his teammates and coaches, Brown attempted to make more cuts to the basket and get to the rim to score. It worked, as Brown finished with a game-high 25 points before the reserves came in over the final four minutes.
“My teammates are a big part of it, they just kept telling me to get after it in the locker room,” Brown said. “We always create opportunities for each other. In the first half I just felt like I wasn’t getting to the rack like I thought I could, so in the second half I made a note to myself to do it more.”
At the end of the game, GRCC’s bench players were checking in as the starters came off the floor to hugs from coaches and teammates. Bench players came in and were hitting threes. The whole team was cheering with everything they had.
Unlike that suddenly distant 2017-18 memory in the state final, this 2020-21 season felt like it was ending how it was supposed to: celebration and pure joy.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I watched my whole family go through Catholic Central,” Karasinski said with a smile. “Watching guys go before me and having me do it in my first time is a great feeling, so yeah, I was excited when I came off the floor.”
Meerman improved his record over eight seasons as the head coach of the Cougars to 117-63. However, there wasn’t a win or a team like this one.
“I think it really was just the selflessness of these guys that made them so special,” Meerman said. “You go back to the summer when we had to make all the adjustments to COVID, moving workout equipment to the football field, these guys being around each other so much. It really is great to see it finish like this.”
Looking forward, this team is still loaded. It is only losing three seniors, one of which was a starter in center Gabe Quillan. There is more than one championship on the mind of these players and coaches.
Right now, though, this one still needs to soak in. All of the pain Meerman and the program felt four years ago suddenly feels a little more tolerable.
This wasn’t just a big night for this team, it finally put the crown on a program that has been building into a West Michigan power.