CHEBOYGAN -- Petoskey flexed its collective muscles on the Cheboygan hardwood Wednesday and it was quite impressive.
The Northmen pushed to an 11-2 lead in the first five minutes of the Class B regional title game against Gladstone and never looked back, ultimately earning a 65-43 victory for their first regional championship since 1990.
Petoskey (23-1) will Muskegon Heights (20-4), a 67-46 victor over Fremont, in Tuesday's quarterfinals at Houghton Lake. Gladstone closed out with an 18-6 record.
"From watching the way their guards handled the ball against Ogemaw (in Monday's semifinals), we knew it would be tough to play from behind against them," said smiling Petoskey senior forward Joe Keedy, who scored 11 points and hit on 7 of 8 free throws. "It was definitely big for us to get the early lead and force them to try and catch us. Once we got the lead, our defense was playing great and made it really hard on them."
Petoskey led 14-8, 32-11 and 44-25 at the quarter breaks and hit on 20 of 25 free throws during the contest.
Northmen coach Dennis Starkey said his team was "locked in" from the start after nearly losing in Monday's triple-overtime thriller against Ludington.
"That woke us up a little bit," Starkey said of the Ludington game. "It made us realize just how close we were to ending the season and it gave us some inspiration coming into tonight. The guys were locked in from the tip off."
Junior Cory Starkey scored five of his game-high 19 points in the opening 11-2 run and sophomore guard Zac Lewis, who brought instant offense off the bench, drained a 3-pointer. Lewis scored eight more points in the second quarter, including back-to-back triples midway through, forcing Gladstone coach Dale Hongisto to change from a zone to a man defense.
"Zac's 3-pointers were big because it got them out of their zone and created some mismatches that we were able to take advantage of," Starkey said.
Before Lewis hit his first trey, Petoskey led 18-8. The back-to-back 3-pointers sparked a 14-3 run that gave the Northmen a commanding lead before halftime.
"We didn't want to go man against them but we had to when they kept making their outside shots," Hongisto said. "We were hoping to get off to a good start but our shots weren't falling early in the game and theirs were. Once they got the lead, they were tough to come back against because they're so methodical and well-coached."
Gladstone, staring at a 20-point deficit, was forced to foul in the second half to keep the Northmen from killing the clock but the strategy was not effective as Petoskey kept making its shots. Starkey hit 4 of 5 from the line and senior point guard Grant Tracy was 4 for 4 in addition to Keedy's accurate shooting from the stripe.
"You have to give them credit; they made their free throws," Hongisto said. "They played a great game all the way around. I'm just proud of our guys for not giving up and playing with class and sportsmanship out there. We didn't win but we represented Gladstone well against an outstanding Petoskey team."
Coach Starkey credited guards Tracy, Brad Murphy and Lewis with handling the ball well against Gladstone's aggressive defense and noted the solid contributions down low from reserves Nick Manzer and Josh Garlitz.
"It was a nice team effort," he said. "It's been a long time since we won (a regional title) and now we want to try and keep it going."
Lewis had 11 points to join Cory Starkey and Keedy in double figures while Tracy hit for seven and Manzer for six.
Senior guard Steve Seronko paced the Braves with 14 points, all coming on penetrations to the hoop.