DEWITT – Tanner Reha didn’t see this coming.
The DeWitt High School three-year varsity guard entered his junior year assuming the Panthers would continue to build their case as one of the Lansing area’s top programs, as it did last season by grabbing its third straight CAAC Red title.
After a slow start, Reha believed everything would eventually fall into place. But it didn’t. The Panthers were well off their mark. DeWitt, which at the beginning of the season was predicted by league coaches to grab its fourth consecutive league title, staggered to a fourth-place finish.
“We were waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever happened,” said Reha, whose team finished the year 11-9 and 4-6 in conference play.
It’s been an up-and-down year for DeWitt, one that has caught the entire program by surprise. But the Panthers have a chance to salvage their year, and it begins with a matchup Wednesday against the Everett Vikings — who reached the state semifinals last year after going 10-10 during the regular season — in the Class A district tournament at Eastern High School.
“The season didn’t necessarily go the way that we had all hoped, and that happens,” said coach Ron Marlan, who is in his 14th year at the helm. “That’s life. Luckily, we get a second chance.
“I think we all know that we’re better than what our record indicates, but we didn’t necessarily play the way we should have this season.”
After a 1-3 start — with the three losses coming to CAAC Red champions St. Johns, Class A No. 2-ranked East Lansing and Class C No. 8-ranked Michigan Center, teams that have a combined record of 56-4 this season — Marlan said his team started to show promise after defeating Williamston, 59-49, just before Christmas.
The Panthers had a two-week break after the win. And it returned only to drop two straight league games to Waverly and Haslett.
“If you get one loss early, you still kind of control your own destiny,” Marlan said. “But when we dropped (three) right away … at that point, the kids started to look and go, ‘Oh, boy. We need some serious help to get a piece of this.’ It’s hard then to get up knowing you might not have a chance to win it.”
Junior forward Luke Hyde, who is also in his third year on varsity, said the break led to bad habits.
“The way our games were scheduled, we had so many practices in a row,” he said. “I think we got sick of practicing a lot. That’s where everything starts. Our practices weren’t going as well, and then the games weren’t going as well.”
Up until this year, Hyde and Reha were young, talented players following senior guidance. Hyde, who averages a team-high 14.8 points per game, and Reha, who average 13.6 points per game, were now needed to help fill that role.
“Last year and the years before, (Evan) Conn, (Donovan) Tarn and Shayne (Cullen), even the guys on the bench, would be yelling and helping everyone out,” Hyde said. “We needed to step up and take that role. It’s easier to get caught in the trap of not talking.”
DeWitt rattled off a five-game winning streak in January, but the program’s pitfalls came against the conference’s top teams. The Panthers went a combined 0-6 against St. Johns, Haslett and Waverly – the three teams that finished above them in the CAAC Red.
Reha said the success of the past three seasons did more harm than good.
“We would look past certain (teams) as if they didn’t have the most talented players, or if we beat them last year,” Reha added. “With winning, it can hurt you.
“If anything, it just humbled us.”
Both Reha and Hyde agree that DeWitt is in a better place. The team ended the season with a 15-point victory over Grand Ledge, closing the regular season by winning three of its last four games — with the one loss coming to Everett. The leadership is flourishing. The confidence is again brewing.
Now, it’s just a matter of proving it on the floor.
“Our record does not show what we’re capable of,” Reha said. “If we all just focus on one thing and that’s just playing your hardest and doing your job, I think we can be really, really good.
“I’m not going to say what we can do, but I think the possibilities are endless.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.