HOWELL — After winning a Class A title for the third time in four years on Friday, the Howell boys basketball team was back at it Saturday, preparing for the next step.
The Highlanders (16-6), who beat South Lyon on its home floor for the district title, begins the next step in the state tournament tonight, when they take on West Bloomfield (14-8) at Walled Lake Northern in a Class A regional.
Game time is 6 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on The Livingston Post at 5:50.
Before Nick Simon arrived and guided the Highlanders to a spot in the Class A quarterfinals three years ago, the Howell program had fallen on hard times. It had gone well over a decade without a district title, and in 2007-08 all three teams (freshman, junior varsity, varsity) combined to go 0-61.
Those days are long gone.
“I think we’re getting the program to one you expect to see in the regionals,” Simon said. “I don’t think you look any more and say, ‘Howell’s in the regionals. That’s a surprise.’ I think it’s important to try and take that next step where people aren’t surprised to see you in the quarterfinals.”
That takes consistent winning on the regional level, and West Bloomfield provides a tough test in the opener of a regional doubleheader at Walled Lake Northern. Novi and Walled Lake Western play in the nightcap. The winners meet for the regional title at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“They’re a top-end talent, as good as anyone we’ve played,” Simon said of the Jaguars. “They have a couple guys who can drop 20-25 (points), they can drop 35 if we don’t defend them well. That’s where we’re going to start, is making those guys work for everything they’ve got.”
West Bloomfield, Simon said, also has a size advantage, not that that’s anything new.
“We’ve been undersized since I got here,” he said. “I think we get used to having to rebound well, having to work for those things. We’re not scared to go up against a team that’s quite a bit taller than us.”
To win, Howell players say, two things must occur.
“It starts on the defensive end,” junior guard Johnny Shields said. “That’s where everything starts, defense-wise. And energy. If we don’t play with energy and don’t play defense, we’re going to get beat by everybody. If we do those things right, we could beat anyone in the state.”
On the court, “we’re going to have to concentrate on not turning the ball over,” Simon said. “And, it’s going to be (about) rebounding. We’ve outrebounded teams in 15 of our games, and that’s pretty much what our record is. We’re 16-6, (and) we typically win when we outrebound teams, and typically lose when we don’t. I think rebounding is going to be paramount.
Shields, who also plays baseball for Howell, will be playing basketball at least one more night. More if he had his druthers.
“Last year, it was tough,” he said. “We lost in the first round. But this year we have a great opportunity ahead of us to do a lot of fun things.”
The loss of a day off at this point of the season didn’t bother senior Dan Zolinski one bit.
“It’s good to keep us going,” he said. “We’ve been preparing for this moment, and it’s going to be a grind from here on out. It will keep us staying focused. We’ll be ready.”