Quarterfinal test looms for Houghton girls

PETOSKEY – The Houghton Gremlins outscored regional opponents West Iron County and Ishpeming by a combined 35-15 in the first quarter.

Another fast start will be needed tonight in tonight’s Class C state quarterfinal to remain on the road to the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Houghton coach Julie Filpus said her staff wasn’t happy with a few of the team’s performances to end the regular season, but building upon the momentum the Gremlins (22-2) have established over the last few weeks will be important to their success against Shelby.

“It feels like we’re running on all cylinders the last two, three games. We’ve refocused and some of the things we weren’t doing well in that stretch have corrected themselves,” she said.

Houghton, in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009, has no players with experience in the pressure cooker of the state’s last eight, but their coach does.

“I would encourage them to get out to a strong start. You have to be in the right frame of mind and have the right focus,” she said.

Tonight’s opponent, the Shelby Tigers (21-3), travel north to Petoskey from Oceana County on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Though they shared the West Michigan Conference title, they were not on the statewide radar screen before last week’s regionals. The Tigers, who received no votes in the last Associated Press state poll, knocked off a pair of ranked teams in Leroy Pine River (No. 5) and Traverse City St. Francis (tied for seventh with Houghton).

Shelby’s star is 6-foot-1 center Sydney Czurak, a Wayne State basketball recruit.

Tiger coach Sarah Wolting said Czurak’s ability to challenge shots inside lets the whole defense extend out, and it’s paid off.

“Our defense has been the best it’s been all season. We’re talking, we’re getting to people, we’re moving our feet, we’re boxing out well. I really thing that’s been the major key to our success thus far,” she said.

Czurak scored 14 of Shelby’s first 20 points as the Tigers took control in the first half of the regional final. She and senior point guard Abby Rodriguez scored 17 points apiece as the Tigers dismissed St. Francis 55-35.

“If (Czurak’s) a scorer, then the bottom line is we have to answer back with offense,” Filpus said.

The Tigers are making their first appearance this deep in the tournament since 2004 and are vying for their first semifinal spot since Wolting played for Shelby in 1999.

Michele Brown, a 6-2 senior, adds to their post prowess. In those situations, Filpus said its important her Gremlins hit their shots from outside.

“Our girls are certainly capable of having a good night behind the arc and that will be one of our goals,” Filpus said.

As for the Tigers, Wolting said what she’s seen of the Gremlins leads her to believe the teams are very opposite.

“We’re going to focus on our game, we’re going to play our defense, that has won our games so far this year. That’s how we’re going to beat them, with our defense,” she said.

Tonight’s winner advances to the second of two semifinals Thursday afternoon against Delton Kellogg or Saginaw Nouvel.