HOUGHTON - It's Houghton County vs. Iron County on two fronts in the MHSAA girls' basketball regional semifinals tonight. Each side's got a favorite and each side has an underdog with something to prove.
In the second of two Class D matchups at Kingsford tonight, Lake Linden-Hubbell (12-10) is a dark horse of dark horses against the state's No. 3 team, Forest Park, and one of the state's top players, Lady Trojan junior center Lexi Gussert.
The Lakes and Lady Trojans are very familiar with each other on the volleyball court, but in the paint is a different story, since LL-H won its first district championship since 1984 last Friday night by beating Baraga at Jeffers.
Coach Timm Gast said the cohesiveness and teamwork his squad displayed in eliminating Chassell, Jeffers and Baraga was one of the most encouraging parts of the tournament run.
"That was the biggest part for me. The ball was distributed well on offense. We had girls scoring eight, 10, 12, with four or five of those girls in a game. And we all played defense," he said.
As for FP and Gussert, Gast said his team is certainly wary of the opponent's quality but believes the Lakes will not back down.
"I think we were facing challenges in the last seven games we didn't know we could step up to and we did," he said.
Forest Park's only loss of the season came Jan. 31 to Kingsford, which is also playing tonight in the Class B regionals. Gussert averages 32 points per game, was never held under 20 and has scored as many as 50 this season, including 44 against Ewen-Trout Creek last Wednesday in the district semis. She also contributes 11 rebounds, five assists, five steals and four blocks a game and has been scouted by the likes of Connecticut and Tennessee this season.
The winner Tuesday will play the winner of 23-0 Superior Central (No. 2 in the state) and North Central in Thursday's final.
In Class C at Marquette, Houghton is very familiar with its regional semifinal opponent in West Iron County.
The 20-2 Gremlins and 13-9 Wykons met twice this year in WestPAC play with Houghton winning both meetings handily, 57-25 in Iron River Dec. 14 and 64-42 in Houghton Jan. 18.
Coach Julie Filpus said it's nice to not go into tonight's game blind from a strategic perspective but history doesn't matter much in the postseason.
"You've got to play the game. It doesn't matter who's wearing the uniform," she said.
The Gremlins saw off another WestPAC opponent, L'Anse (with whom WIC split this season), in the district final Friday. Filpus said she was happy with her team's preparation for tournament play.
"I think we took care of the ball well. You set some of the traveling we did aside in the L'Anse game, I thought we were seeing the open player, I thought we made some good transition passes. In that respect, we were happy," she said.
However, foul trouble to key players put the championship game at much more risk than Filpus was comfortable with.
"We stress to our kids how important it is to be eligible to play 32 minutes. Probably our first four or five fouls in the L'Anse game were careless, lack of discipline mental mistakes. Our kids have to be smarter than that in the regional tournament," she said.
West Iron's top player is multi-talented senior guard Kylee Erickson. Filpus said she's quick off the dribble but still has excellent outside range.
Inside the Gremlins will have to contend with the physical duo of Emilie Christensen and Megan Miatech.
"They're physical, their kids go after the ball and they're aggressive and our kids have to be ready for that," Filpus said.
The winner of tonight's nightcap will face Mid-Peninsula Conference opposition in either Ishpeming or Manistique in Thursday's regional final.