Chassell continues proving itself, poised for postseason run

Chassell’s Jenna Pietila drives to the basket. (Bryce Derouin/Daily Mining Gazette)

CHASSELL — First, it was avenging last year’s district loss to Jeffers. Then it was proving the defeat to L’Anse was a fluke. Now, it’s about making their claim as the best team in the U.P. and perhaps even the state.

See? There’s been no shortage of motivating factors for the Chassell Panthers, despite how dominant they’ve been in what’s been, quite honestly, a drama-less season. The Panthers spent the winter showing up to a game, blowing the other team out, calling it good and returning home. On and on it went, 19 times by an average of nearly 30 points a contest.

But now it’s time for the postseason, and now the fun begins.

Chassell begins its tournament run with a matchup tonight against Jeffers at 8 p.m. in Painesdale. The Panthers are perennial favorites in the district and should they advance, will face No. 1 Munising in a regional semifinal in Kingsford. Win that game, and Chassell could be making a trip to Calvin College for the state semifinals.

But talk is talk and making plans based on projections is not on the mind of Chassell coach Brandi Hainault.

“We want to make sure we play our game all the time and not ever take anything for granted or ever think we’re better without proving it,” she said. “That’s been our motto this year, ‘Prove it.’ Prove it when you’re out there, and do everything you can to win the game.

“We have a lot of unfinished business from last year. We have to look at Jeffers and take that game first and go from there.”

The senior core of this season’s team has experienced both ends of the postseason emotional spectrum. To the surprise of some, after a 9-11 season, the Panthers captured the district title in 2016. After returning much of its core, Chassell entered as one of the favorites last year, only to lose in the district semifinals to Jeffers, 61-50.

However, even Jeffers, who sports the second best record in the Copper Country division, has been no match for Chassell. The Panthers won the first matchup 62-24 and were victorious again, 57-28 on Feb. 12. But even with all the blowouts, Chassell has never gotten too high on itself. Mostly because the one loss continues to hang over the team’s head and serves as a constant reminder of what can happen on a given night.

The season opener with L’Anse started off how many thought. Chassell jumped out to an 18-2 lead and appeared poised to start its season with a blowout win. But L’Anse managed to repeatedly score while attacking the basket and scored the most points against Chassell this season in a 62-58 upset win.

“That was really tough,” Chassell senior Sydney Danison said. “I think it kind of got into our heads that we could take it easy, but realistically, you can never take your foot off the gas pedal when you’re playing a game because you need to prove until the last buzzer that you are the better team.”

Since then, they have. And in the process, Danison and senior guard Milly Allen have proven themselves as two of the best players in the U.P. in Class D. Allen averages 16.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.6 steals and 4.6 assists per game; Danison averages 14.9 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks per contest, all while the two see limited action on most nights due to the lopsided scores.

Both Danison and Allen credit their AAU experience this past summer for their stellar seasons. The chance to play bigger, faster talent from across the midwest challenged them to improve their skill sets.

“That was amazing. I would definitely recommend playing AAU to anyone who has the opportunity,” Danison said. “It’s really nice to get out of the U.P. to see the different talent other states can offer, and it can definitely change you as a player to see how you can change your game.”

Besides having two of the best players in the U.P., Chassell features a deep rotation of guards, including Jenna Pietila, Meg Hokenson and Lela Rautiola who are all a defensive nightmare on the perimeter for opposing guards. And along with Danison, Sophia Huhta serves as another lengthy rim protector for a Chassell defense that only gives up 32 points per game.

“When they talk, they do an amazing job,” Hainault said of her defense. “They cover, they help and are unselfish with all of that. They make sure the person that has the ball has a very hard time scoring. They work hard and I couldn’t ask for a better mentality on defense. They understand that defense is going to bring them where they want to go.”

Ask anyone on Chassell about a potential matchup with Munising, and they’ll smile with a hint of excitement before giving the typical respectful answer. The Panthers are saying the right things, but one must imagine it’s difficult not to seek out a game with the team that’s been consistently ranked higher despite featuring the same 19-1 record.

“It is that thought that it would be nice to have that showdown to see who is the better team,” Hainault said. “It is one of our goals that we’d like to do, but we have to take it one game at a time in districts so that we get that opportunity.”