LUDINGTON – Anyone who looked at the Ludington girls basketball team’s record after seven games this season would have laughed at the idea of the Orioles advancing to the state Final Four.
But the numbers didn’t tell the whole story. The Orioles purposefully scheduled games against some pretty great teams early in the season, so they could learn how to play against the best.
The results were sometimes ugly. The Orioles lost to a good Reeths-Puffer squad 47-24, then played in the Motor City Roundball Classic in Detroit and lost to a pair of state powers – Hartland (51-26) and West Bloomfield (69-22).
After seven games the Orioles were 3-4, but learned a lot from the experience.
That became clear over the rest of the regular season, when the Orioles won 12 of their last 13 games and captured a Lakes 8 conference championship.
They stayed hot when the tournament rolled around, capturing a district championship with wins over Reed City (36-15) and Big Rapids (44-36), a regional title with wins over Standish Sterling (54-36) and Negaunee (34-31), and finally an exciting 30-27 upset of favored Frankenmuth on Tuesday in the Division 2 state quarterfinals.
Now the 20-5 Orioles – that same team that lost four early games – are headed to Michigan State University’s Breslin Center to take on powerful Detroit Edison in the state semifinals on Friday at 7:30 p.m. The winner will advance to Saturday’s state championship game.
Few people expect the Orioles to give Edison much of a fight, but Ludington has gone up against some great teams (Hartland and West Bloomfield are both Division 1 state semifinalists), so they won’t be shocked by the level of competition, and they’ve improved a lot since those early games.
“We know Detroit Edison is super talented,” said second-year Ludington coach Warren Stowe. “They have girls who are committed to ACC and Big East colleges. We’re excited to go compete against that level. We’re lucky we have already competed against that level.”
“I would be lying if I said I thought we would get to the Final Four. But I knew my girls were talented and always competed as hard as they could. They are just a determined group. We lost in the regional finals last year and they wanted to get further this year.”
Stowe recalls those early-season games, when two key players were out with injuries, and three sophomores with little varsity experience had to go up against the likes of Hartland and West Bloomfield.
“Now when we see pressure in games, it’s not the most pressure we’ve experienced,” the coach said. “Even playing against Frankenmuth (in the quarterfinals), I would probably say they were the third best team we’ve played this season.”
Defense made all the difference for Ludington in the low-scoring quarterfinal game on Tuesday.
The Orioles failed to score a point in the third quarter, which may be a first in the history of the state quarterfinals, but they also held Frankenmuth to just one point in the quarter.
The game was tied 6-6 after one quarter, 14-14 at halftime, and Frankenmuth led 15-14 headed into the fourth. Ludington sealed down the win with a 16-11 advantage down the stretch.
The game was a reflection of the Orioles’ season. While Ludington certainly has players who can score, like RyAnn Rohrer, Keelyn Laird, Rylee Stone and Olivia Lynn, defense is the team trademark.
The Orioles have won six games so far when they scored less than 40 points, which is pretty tough to do without shutting other teams down.
“I don’t think many people thought Ludington was going to win, outside of the people in the gym who are with me every day,” Stowe said about the quarterfinal game. “Frankenmuth has such great shooters. We added up all of their scores and realized they averaged almost 57 points per game, then they only scored 27 against us. Once we settled in and realized we could guard them, I was feeling pretty good.
“If you would have just told me the final score, 30-27, I would have said that Ludington won, no doubt about it. I told the girls that they are one of the best defensive teams in the state.”
Besides having experience against tough teams and a great defense, Ludington also has a great example to follow, set by the Orioles boys team in 2017.
That Ludington squad advanced to the state semifinals and shocked highly-ranked and heavily-favored River Rouge 51-50 in overtime, before falling the next day in the state finals.
The boys made a return appearance in the semifinals two years later.
The Ludington girls team has never done anything quite so impressive. It’s only been to the state semifinals once, back in 2004, and lost. But the current group of Orioles may be scrappy and self-confident enough to give Detroit Edison a fight on Friday.
“That’s the Ludington way, the Oriole tradition,” said Stowe, who played for longtime Orioles boys coach Thad Shank back in 2000 before going off to college and working elsewhere before returning to his alma mater in 2020. “I’m lucky to be back in Ludington coaching the girls.”