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Cardinals top Hillman, capture first district title since 2016

Courtesy Photo/Jared Greenleaf/Cheboygan Daily Tribune Onaway boys basketball players celebrate with the trophy after defeating Hillman in a Division 4 district final in Onaway on Saturday.

ONAWAY — It was physical, it was feisty, and it got downright ugly at times.

But at the end of the night — no matter how it looked — the Onaway Cardinals just wanted to be the last ones standing.

Thanks to a remarkably resilient performance, the Cardinals (13-3) pulled away late for a 54-44 victory over Hillman (12-8) in a Division 4 boys basketball district final in Onaway on Saturday.

“(Winning this) means a lot because ever since I stepped into this gym, that’s all we’ve been working for,” Onaway senior guard Kevin Pearson, who led the Cardinals with a game-high 26 points, including five made 3-pointers, said. “We didn’t care about the regular season, we just wanted to win in the postseason, and that’s what we did this year. Last year it got taken away from us (because of COVID-19), so we just worked harder this year to get the win, and that’s what we did.”

Saturday’s triumph was the first district title for the Onaway boys since 2016, when they held on for a thrilling win over Hillman in Wolverine.

With much of his family down in Florida for spring break, Onaway head coach Eddy Szymoniak stayed back with his team.

In the end, Szymoniak’s team — without junior star center Jager Mix on the floor due to a recent injury — delivered for him in the best way possible.

“I talked to my dad about this — my whole family is in Florida right now — I had to make a decision at one point, and I told these boys coming into the season that I wasn’t sure what would happen if we had gotten here,” Szymoniak said. “My family knows how passionate I am about my team. These boys are like sons to me. I stayed back and had to do this with my family down there and said, ‘You know what? With Jag out, it’s going to be a battle tonight and so hard for us to win,’ and to do it without my family here, I told them this may be sweeter than (the title win in 2016).

“The odds were stacked against us here, and they rose to the occasion.”

The Cardinals got off to a fantastic start, building a 13-4 lead on a run keyed by two 3-pointers from Pearson and another from senior guard Spencer Nash. After the Tigers cut the deficit to three, Pearson hit another triple right before the buzzer sounded to put the Cardinals up 18-12 at the end of one.

However, the Tigers (12-8) — who had a significant size advantage — chipped away at Onaway’s lead and only trailed by two going into the break.

The Tigers took their first lead since the start of the game when junior Sean Henigan scored to make it 26-25 early in the third.

The Cardinals quickly got their lead back, then later made it a 33-29 advantage when Nash drilled a three. Onaway led 34-32 after three.

With the game tied at 40 in the fourth, Pearson came up big again with a made three to make it a 43-40 Cardinals lead. The Cardinals later received arguably their two biggest baskets of the game when Pearson and freshman guard Jadin Mix scored back-to-back layups to push the lead up to five.

Behind their stout defense, the Cardinals got the stops and scores needed down the stretch to put the game on ice.

“It’s just amazing,” Nash, who finished with 12 points and three made 3-pointers, said. “We worked our (butts) off the whole game and we never hung our heads. That’s the thing. We kept going and refused to lose, and that was our mindset throughout the whole season. Man, it was so great. As soon as it ended, it was sheer joy and excitement going out, and we can’t wait for regionals.”

Even without Mix, the mindset remained the same for the Cardinals.

“Refuse to lose,” Pearson said. “That’s what it was last year, and it got taken away from us, so we refused to lose this year, and that’s what happened.”

The Cardinals also received four points from Daniel Price, two from Hunter Riley, and one apiece from Cole Selke and Bridger Peel.

With the win, Onaway advances to face Alanson (13-7) in a regional semifinal clash in Pellston on Tuesday.

What will it take for the Cardinals to advance on Tuesday?

Pearson knows.

“Just play hard, like regular, that’s all,” Pearson said.

Caleb Hiveley finished with eight points to lead the Tigers, while Henigan and Brady Firman both scored six. Dawson Abldeidinger and Laden Timm each had six.

“I would like to thank my seniors Dawson Ableidinger, Zachary Kazyaka, and Jaden Dove for helping rebuild the foundation of our basketball program. I don’t think many would have placed us in the district championship in the beginning of the year and I thought those guys showed great leadership towards a young team,” Hillman coach Eric Muszynski said. “We made great strides this year and the future continues to look bright.”

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