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The time I thought Calumet had no chance to win a state title

Daily Mining Gazette file photo Calumet head coach Jeff Twardzik celebrates in his team’s homecoming in March of 2015 after winning the Class C state title against Flint Hamady.

On March 21, 2015, an hour before Calumet would begin its Class C state championship game with Flint Hamady, I began to walk downstairs. My Mom asked if I was going to watch the game. I said no. She asked why. I told her, and I vividly remember this, “No, because I already know Calumet is going to get destroyed. They have to play Flint Hamady. There is no way they can win. I’m going to take a nap.”

Mom replied with something along the lines of how it was “cool they got this far” and how I should support them because it was a U.P. school. But no, I laughed and went to sleep. I was not in the mood to watch a blowout.

– – –

Before I came here, I knew nothing about the area. To be honest, I thought Calumet was located at the very top of the U.P — like where Copper Harbor is. I understood even less about basketball in the area, since I thought people in the Copper Country only cared about hockey. (The first time I saw a high school hockey game, I was really young and Calumet was in town to play Escanaba. Calumet scored in seven seconds, and I had to ask my friend if it’s supposed to be that easy to score in hockey. They said no.)

At the time of Calumet’s state title run, I was covering sports for the Escanaba Daily Press, and we were in the midst of being occupied with North Central’s state title run, which left Calumet as an afterthought.

When Calumet won the regional title, it was near me in Escanaba. I didn’t think much of it. Good for them, but they’ll probably lose in the quarterfinal, I figured.

Then they beat Tawas.

OK, but they won’t win a game at the Breslin Center.

They beat Laingsburg.

Then I googled Flint Hamady’s team.

OK, now there’s really no way Calumet will win. Flint Hamady has two all-state players, and Aaliah Hill, a 6-foot forward, is headed to Central Michigan. There’s just no way.

– – –

My Mom asked how I could have such little faith in Calumet. And it had to do with Houghton.

I’m not sure if the Houghton girls remember, but when I was at the Daily Press, I covered them twice that season. Sloane Zenner and Tawna Ryynanen were sophomores at the time, and on each occasion I covered them, Houghton lost. First, they fell 36-32 to Gladstone, then they lost 54-44 to Escanaba. And the thing is, Gladstone and Escanaba weren’t even the best teams in our coverage area that year. But the bigger takeaway was that Houghton played poorly in each of those games. Against Gladstone, they shot just 12 of 36 and had 30 turnovers. In the Escanaba game, Houghton was just 15 of 56, and scored just 14 second-half points on 3 of 17 shooting while going 0 for 10 from 3-point range in that span.

So why does this matter to Calumet? Because when Calumet was making their tourney run, I checked their scores from the season and saw they lost to Houghton twice. If they couldn’t beat Houghton — who couldn’t beat Escanaba and Gladstone — how they heck were they going to beat Flint Hamady?

– – –

I woke up from my nap with a few minutes left in the second quarter and decided to watch — just in time to see Calumet’s Lexie Rowe go off, on her way to hitting five 3s and scoring 22 points. By halftime, Calumet had tied the game at 27, and Mom kept going on about how exciting this moment was. She was extremely impressed that Jeff Twardzik was doing this well in his first year as a head coach at Calumet, and kept saying how cool it was that he remained calm and positive on the sideline and during the timeouts — since the MHSAA has the sound crew, you can listen to the in-game huddles. As you can tell, my Mom enjoys the personal element of sports a lot.

I’d be lying if I said it was a well-played game of basketball. Calumet shot just 30 percent, and Flint Hamady was 37 percent from the field as both teams struggled to develop any offensive rhythm. But eventually, Calumet’s physicality and hectic defense took over. They rode Flint Hamady’s guards on the perimeter, and the refs let them play. It was evident Flint Hamady became shook by the style of the game while Calumet appeared in its element — relaxed and controlled.

Mom gave out a big “Whoooohoooo” cheer when the buzzer sounded on Calumet’s 57-49 win. You would think she was a Copper King for life by the way she was cheering for them. And no, she never gave me an “I told you so.”

– – –

The first time I met Twardzik, it was before the 2015-16 season and it was for an interview for the upcoming preview tab. One of the first things I said was how I couldn’t believe they won the state title last season. He replied with, “You weren’t the only one.”

– – –

LOCAL RANKINGS

Previous ranking in parenthesis

Girls

1. Houghton 6-0 (1)

Good to see them rally from behind against Gladstone, overcoming a 20-19 halftime deficit to win 55-39 on the road. Talent isn’t a question with this group. Houghton’s success will be dictated on how they handle adverse situations and if they can dig deep and prevail when they’re challenged. So far, so good.

2. Calumet 4-3 (2)

No, they won’t be anywhere near the top five in next week’s first UPSSA Large School Poll, but they’re still likely the second-best team in the area. Nice bounce-back win over L’Anse, 77-54, on Tuesday. Right now, they’re leading the West-PAC at 3-0, while Houghton is 2-0.

3. Baraga 5-1 (3)

The Vikings are currently on a five-game winning streak. They have a major conference test with Chassell on Monday.

4. Jeffers 4-1 (4)

Julia Nordstrom’s 33-point performance in Jeffers’ 68-22 win on Tuesday is this season’s local high for an individual — boy or girl. After at trip to Ontonagon on Friday, Jeffers hosts Houghton on Tuesday.

5. Chassell 4-1 (5)

Similar to Baraga, Chassell hasn’t lost since dropping its season opener to a nonconference foe; the Panthers lost 48-43 to L’Anse. Chassell won without its leader and point guard, Milly Allen, on Tuesday against Ontonagon.

Boys

1. Hancock 4-1 (1)

They haven’t played since the break, but a showdown with Chassell tonight should be a good indicator of where they’re at.

2. Dollar Bay 1-1 (2)

It’s Jan. 6 and they’ve played just two games so far. Even for Copper Country standards, that’s ridiculous to see so many games delayed. And with snow projected all through the weekend, who knows if they are even able to play Lake Linden-Hubbell tonight and Ontonagon on Friday.

3. Calumet 5-1 (3)

Matt Ojala’s go-ahead 3 in overtime against Ewen-Trout Creek propelled the Copper Kings to a 54-52 win in overtime. Calumet is now on a five-game winning streak. Tonight, they head to L’Anse for a key West-PAC game.

4. Jeffers 4-1 (Not ranked)

They feature an athletic 2-3 zone with active players on the defensive end. Offensively, they have four guys who can dribble-drive or connect from the perimeter. Bradley Jenkins is a solid inside presence to complement Jaden Wood, Caleb Maki, Carson Turner and Tanner Nicholas.

5. Ewen-Trout Creek 3-3 (4)

E-TC’s three losses — twice to Calumet and once to Hancock — are by a combined eight points. From a glass-half-full perspective, it’s good they’re learning how to play in close, late-game situations; it will help them in March. Jake Witt recorded another monstrous double-double against Calumet, finishing with 22 points and 17 rebounds. He was also sick during that game.

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