Players, coaches relish electric atmosphere

There were 3,276 fans in attendance on Wednesday as Dollar Bay defeated Ewen-Trout Creek 51-42 at Michigan Tech. (David Archambeau/ Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — The combined enrollment of Dollar Bay and Ewen-Trout Creek’s high schools is 174. Neither school hits double-digits in its own numbers — Dollar Bay has 99 students and E-TC has 75, but  3,276 people filed into Michigan Tech’s Wood Gym to watch the undefeated teams square-off on Wednesday night. That’s over 18-times the combined enrollment of the schools.

“It was really crazy,” E-TC’s Cole Borseth said. “The biggest atmosphere we had ever played in front of was regionals and that was about 1,000. To play in front of over 3,000 was crazy for all of us, it really was. For a small town like us, having all these people come out to support us was amazing.”

The JV game was half over when the place really started to fill up, and by the time tip-off was 15 minutes away, empty seats were hard to come by. If a person showed up moments before tip, they had a few options: Pay someone for their seat, leave, or sit on the baseline. Needless to say, many basketball fans were OK with saying goodbye to a bleacher seat, and hello to the wood floor.

“I knew there would be people interested in the game, and I thought it would be cool for the kids to get a college-atmosphere experience, that was our whole goal. But did I think people would be sitting on the baselines because there wasn’t enough room? No, not at all,” Dollar Bay coach Jesse Kentala said after his team’s 51-42 victory.

Kentala and E-TC coach Brad Besonen both played basketball in the Copper Country, so they have years of experience on the subject of crowds and high school hoops fans. Kentala also attended Tech, and he said apart from a game in the early 2000s when the Tech men’s team made a deep playoff run, he has never seen the gym filled like it was on Wednesday. For a mid-season game in the U.P. to garner this much attention, that is a big deal.

“What I think is really cool about it is you have little tiny Dollar Bay, and little tiny E-TC and those tiny schools have teams that are good enough to bring over 3,000 people out to watch,” Besonen said. “I mean, that is fantastic.”

Kentala hoped people would come because he wanted a good atmosphere for his players, but it wasn’t until the few days leading up to the game that he realized just how big it could be. Kentala couldn’t make a trip to Walmart without people coming up to him and letting the coach know how excited they were for the contest.

“People who don’t even like high school basketball said they were coming to this game, and I don’t think we disappointed,” he said. “I think we put on a good show tonight.”

As the game went on, the crowd seemed to agree. A Jake Witt dunk in the third quarter ignited the loudest cheers, but with each made basket, fans let their enthusiasm show. And for a group of high school kids, that was pretty special.

“You could feel the energy from the crowd, their side and our side going back-and-forth every time we scored,” E-TC’s Eli Nordine said.

“Playing in this atmosphere was the best feeling ever,” Dollar Bay guard Brendan LeClaire said. “I love when the crowd is this hyped up. Everyone is filling the stands, and it is a different atmosphere. I don’t think we would have fit in Dollar Bay.”

LeClaire is right, although his remarks are quite understated. There is no way the 3,276 basketball fans would have squeezed onto Dollar Bay’s eight rows of bleachers. The fans created an atmosphere the players will likely never forget, but more importantly for Kentala and Besonen, it will prepare their teams for the postseason.

“I couldn’t ask for a better situation, especially at this point in the season where tournament time is really getting near,” Besonen said. “You get the chance to get some of those big-crowd, big-game jitters out of the way. Because you could see tonight it affected our young guys quite a bit. So to get that out of the way was really nice.

“Our gym has been filling up as we have progressed through the season, but to see not only our student body, but our community come out in full force for a regular season game was pretty neat. Some of the guys handled it really well and some of the guys didn’t, but to get over that at this point is a definite advantage for both of us.”