Local boys districts are wide open
Let’s just get it out of the way.
Barring a major upset, the winners of the Class C District 96 and Class D District 128 will be massive underdogs in their regional semifinal matchup against two of the top teams in the U.P. The local Class C winner will likely face the Negaunee Miners (16-4), while the District 128 victor would play the North Central Jets (20-0).
But what’s uncertain is which one of our local teams will get out of their district. Similar to the Ewen-Trout Creek Panthers competing in District 127 and the Houghton Gremlins in District 64, there is plenty of parity to go around in all of the local districts. It’s difficult to pick one definitive favorite, so with the competitive balance being like it is, we could be in for a dramatic week full of surprises.
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CLASS B DISTRICT 64
Maybe the fourth time can be the charm for the Houghton Gremlins. In each of Houghton’s last three years, they’ve had their season ended by the Kingsford Flivvers. And while this may not be Jared Lawson’s most talented group over the last four years, this team may be able to break the losing skid. Houghton managed to edge Kingsford 43-40 on Feb. 16 and this is one of Kingsford’s weaker teams compared to recent years. Kingsford finished 1-17 and is on a 14-game losing streak.
If Houghton advances past Kingsford, they would host an 8-11 Menominee Maroons team. Menominee has two impressive wins over the Gladstone Braves and the distinction of giving North Central one of their closer games (70-59 on Dec. 19). The long road trip to Houghton for the Maroons could make things interesting for the Gremlins before having to travel to face the Escanaba Eskymos (12-8) or Gladstone in the finals.
WINNER PREDICTION: Gladstone
In the last two seasons, Escanaba has managed to defeat Gladstone in the postseason after losing twice in the regular season to their rival. I don’t know how Escanaba head coach Tracy Hudson managed to do it, but the ability to make adjustments from the regular season to when it matters, is what separates good from great coaches.
But eventually this talented Gladstone core has to get one, right?
This season, Gladstone managed to beat Escanaba by the largest of margins compared to the two years prior, winning 69-45 on Dec. 16 and 81-60 on Feb. 27. Hudson will have had nine days to prepare for the third meeting, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.
If Gladstone figures out their rival, they likely will have to overcome a Menominee squad that swept them.
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CLASS C DISTRICT 96
None of the local teams are entering the postseason while lighting the world on fire.
The Calumet Copper Kings (14-6) stumbled in a 44-41 loss to the Houghton Gremlins on Feb. 28.
The L’Anse Purple Hornets (6-14) and Hancock Bulldogs (9-10) are 1-5 in their last six games.
It’s the Ironwood Red Devils (9-11) — winners of five of their last six — who are the hottest team in this district. I’m not sure what level of competition they’re playing since those wins are against smaller schools. But winning is winning and it’s not as if Calumet, Hancock or L’Anse are going to be confused for the North Central Jets anytime soon.
WINNER PREDICTION: Calumet
Considering depth, post play and the guards on the perimeter, Calumet is the most complete team of the three local schools. They handled L’Anse 64-36 on Jan. 5 and 72-48 on Feb. 14. And after dropping the opener to Hancock 45-41 on Dec. 5, Calumet has responded with 42-32 and 66-54 victories over their rival.
In a district filled with inconsistent teams, I have an easier time trusting the West-PAC First Team backcourt of senior Wyatt Loukus and sophomore Matt Ojala, and the homecourt advantage Calumet would enjoy in the finale against Hancock or Ironwood.
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CLASS D DISTRICT 128
Boys basketball in the Copper Country gets a bad rap when comparing it to the rest of the U.P. — especially the Central U.P. But there are players — like in this district — who could start across the U.P. in Class D. And with the talent spread out across five schools, each of whom could legitimately win this district, this tournament has the potential to be the wildest and most memorable of the four districts with local teams.
Here are the teams with the best chances to hoist the district trophy.
Ontonagon Gladiators (12-8)
After starting 4-6, Ontonagon closed the season as one of the best teams in the Copper Mountain Conference, going 8-2 in their final 10 games.
In terms of height and strength, Ontonagon boasts the largest team in this district. And with Copper Mountain Conference Elite Team member, senior Mitchell Borseth, zoning the Gladiators isn’t an easy solution with Borseth’s ability to get hot from 3-point range.
The Gladiators’ size has proved to be too much for Dollar Bay in a 65-61 win on Jan. 6 and a 64-56 victory on Feb. 10. Ontonagon hopes to go for the three-peat tonight.
Dollar Bay Blue Bolts (16-4)
After winning the school’s first conference title since 1995 and going 14-2 to close the season, Dollar Bay should probably be the favorite in this district. But Ontonagon’s size creates mismatch problems for the Blue Bolts, and since the MHSAA doesn’t seed the postseason, Dollar Bay — along with Ontonagon — has the toughest path to a district title with a matchup with the Jeffers Jets in the semifinal before facing either the Chassell Panthers or Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes in the finale.
The Blue Bolts feature one of the top scoring duos in juniors Devin Schmitz (22.9 points per game) and Jaden Janke (18.5). They might be the best scoring tandem on this side of the U.P., and Dollar Bay will need them to duplicate their success if the Blue Bolts are to get to Negaunee.
Jeffers Jets (16-4)
Before the 54-46 loss to Dollar Bay on Thursday, Jeffers had won 10 in a row and was rolling at the right time. But now Jeffers must prepare for a district semifinal without one of their key players: junior Carson Turner.
The Jets were already a team that didn’t sport exceptional depth, playing just seven guys in its rotation. I’m not sure what the talent on the JV team was this season, or if head coach Duane Snell plans to give one of those JV players a more prominent role in place of Turner for Wednesday’s semifinal, but the Jets now can’t afford foul trouble to what appears will be a six-man rotation.
Seniors Jaden Wood and Caleb Maki can light it up on the offensive end and more now might be asked of them without Turner.
Chassell Panthers (11-9)
The Chassell Panthers are an annoying team, and they should take that as a compliment.
Facing Chassell’s full-court pressure over the course of 32 minutes has the potential to wear teams down. After made baskets, Chassell’s guards are right on the hip of the opposing team’s players before bumping and riding them the entire way up the floor. Players are already annoyed after letting a team score, but then having to be pressed soon after just compounds the annoyance. The Panthers can make any team frustrated with their aggressive defense.
When Chassell is at its best, their pressure is able to turn teams over and lead to fast-break points. One of their best players at doing that is sophomore Abe Gockenbach. Chassell’s postseason success could come down to the health of Gockenbach’s ankle — an injury he suffered in a 62-59 win over Calumet on Feb. 17. The Panthers are a different team when he’s healthy.
Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes (6-14)
LL-H went on a weird trajectory this season. They started slow before they peaked, beating Chassell 63-59 on Jan. 9 and Jeffers 60-56 on Jan. 12. But soon after, they appeared to relapse, losing nine of 10 to close the season.
If “good” LL-H shows up, maybe they can make a run at this thing.
WINNER PREDICTION: Dollar Bay
Sometimes you just have to take the team who has the best player. All these teams have signature qualities that could propel them to a district title, but only one team has the top player and that has to count for something.
At the same time, it’s a very real possibility they don’t make it past the first game. That’s how wide open this district is.
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CLASS D DISTRICT 127
It comes down to this: If the Ewen-Trout Creek Panthers (11-8) can make shots from the perimeter, they’ll win this district and go to Negaunee. If not, they’ll fall in the finals to the Forest Park Trojans or Bessemer Speedboys.
No one in this district is hotter than Bessemer, who has won nine straight games, including a 74-48 beatdown over E-TC on Thursday. Meanwhile, Forest Park (9-11) has had an up-and-down season but did manage a 51-38 win over the then-No. 2 Carney-Nadeau Wolves on Feb. 25.
WINNER PREDICTION: E-TC
Forest Park has represented this district the last four years in the regional tournament. In order to make it five in a row, they’ll have to top a game Bessemer team and a E-TC squad that has one of the top players in the U.P.
Throughout the season, people from the Central U.P. have mentioned to me they would like to see E-TC junior Jake Witt play in person — most notably at the regional tournament in Negaunee. The Copper Mountain Conference Player of the Year averaged 24.2 points, 17 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per game while shooting 60 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from 3. If Witt continues his dominance into the postseason and gets some help with outside shooting from senior Austin Berglund and sophomore Eli Nordine, those people could get their wish next week.