No. 2 Chassell lives up to the hype, captures district title with win over Ontonagon

The Chassell Panthers pose with the Class D District 128 championship trophy. Chassell defeated Ontonagon 52-37 Friday in Painesdale. (Daily Mining Gazette/Bryce Derouin)

PAINESDALE — Let’s take a moment to recognize the admirable efforts of Jeffers, Baraga and now Ontonagon. Each school overcame blowout losses during the regular season to the No. 2 Chassell Panthers to put on a resilient showing and deliver their best upset bid in this district tournament.

But no amount of mental fortitude was enough to overcome the skill, size and strength of the Chassell Panthers. And following a 52-37 win over the Gladiators in Friday’s Class D District 128 final in Painesdale, the Copper Country’s best chance at a state title on the hardwood advances to Kingsford to face the No. 1 Munising Mustangs in a regional semifinal on Tuesday.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy thing,” Chassell coach Brandi Hainault said. “You see these teams all year. They know everything you can do and had nothing to lose. I thought my girls responded pretty well to the pressure.”

There was the mental pressure this week; the expectation that these Panthers should roll with ease to their second district title in three years. And then there was the actual pressure imposed by the Ontonagon Gladiators, who mixed in full-court pressure with a tight man defense in the halfcourt to confound the Panthers.

Chassell (22-1) finished the game with 21 turnovers and missed on all six of its 3-point attempts.

Ontonagon's Holly Wardynski protects the ball against Chassell's Meg Hokenson during the Class D District 128 final Friday in Painesdale. (Daily Mining Gazette/Bryce Derouin)

“I told the girls the fact that they won with how bad we played, it shows their character,” Hainault said. “It shows what they’re capable of doing.

“Every good team has bad games, and I don’t think that we necessarily played a bad game, we just didn’t play our game.”

No, neither the sharpshooting from 3 or the routine drives to the basket were consistent against Ontonagon (12-11). But it was the same ol’ stifling defense that has propelled the Panthers to 22 victories this season.

On only two occasions has Chassell surrendered 50 or more points this season, and Friday was not going to be the third time. Especially when Chassell limited Ontonagon to 11 of 44 shooting from the field (25 percent) and forced the Gladiators into 19 turnovers.

The backcourt group of seniors Milly Allen and Meg Hokenson, along with juniors Jenna Pietila and Lela Rautiola, put on a clinic on defensive man-to-man perimeter defense by sticking with their assignment all throughout the night. And if any of the Ontonagon guards were able to get a driving angle, Chassell’s help was there on a rotation, or seniors Sydney Danison and Sophia Huhta provided rim protection.

Chassell’s Meg Hokenson and Ontonagon’s Izabelle Lutz battle for a rebound during the Class D District 128 final Friday in Painesdale. (Daily Mining Gazette/Bryce Derouin)

The Gladiators missed their first eight shots of the second half and were scoreless until junior Holly Wardynski made two free throws to cut Chassell’s lead to 30-20. Ontonagon finished just 2 of 12 from the field in the third as Chassell led 36-26 going into the fourth quarter.

Wardynski led the Gladiators with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

“When we had those stretches where we don’t score, you’re giving a good team way too many opportunities without matching with them,” Ontonagon coach Dick Franti said. “If you’re down six that’s not so bad, but when it gets to 12, you can’t have anymore stretches where you don’t score.”

Despite its offensive struggles, it’s too difficult to keep a Chassell team this deep and this versatile down for too long, even with foul trouble for the 6-foot-2 Danison, who was this district’s MVP after recording double-doubles against Jeffers (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Baraga (18 points, 15 rebounds).

Danison picked up her third foul with 4:22 left in the second quarter and was forced to sit on the bench for much of the remaining half. Then, with 4:32 left in the third, she was hit with her fourth foul and didn’t return until midway through the fourth. All of this meant more time for Huhta, and she did not disappoint.

Huhta didn’t register a point in either of Chassell’s victories over Ontonagon during the regular season. But with Danison out and Chassell needing a reliable inside presence, Huhta came through with 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. She finished a putback as she was fouled before making a free throw for the three-point play to put her team ahead 23-18 with 1:44 left in the first half.

“Sophia is capable of a lot of things and she just proved that she wasn’t leaving this floor without a win,” Hainault said. “She was going to do whatever she had to, and I’m so proud of her play. She stepped up when we needed her too, and that’s how championship teams are supposed to respond.”

Chassell’s guards finally got loose at the start of the fourth, and Allen, Pietila and Hokenson each finished driving layups for a 6-0 run and a 42-26 lead. Then it was Danison’s turn to put the finishing touches on the game as she converted 4 of 5 shots down the stretch to never allow one last push from Ontonagon.

Danison recorded her third double-double of the tournament, finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds.

“I think we were a little tired and panicking at that point,” Franti said of his defense. “Knowing that you need to get the ball back quick and taking too many chances.

“Chassell is a good solid team and will represent our conference real well down there.”

Ever since the first UPSSA poll came out, the Panthers have felt slighted. Each poll has read the same: No. 1 Munising, No. 2 Chassell. But now the Panthers will finally get their chance to prove they’re the best team in the U.P. and flip the script on the Central U.P. bias.

“There’s that chip of this area being bad at basketball,” Hainault said. “I’m tired of it. I want to prove to that area that we are good and that we deserve to be there and deserve to be No. 1. That’s what I want to show them.”

Bark River-Harris (17-5) will face Forest Park (13-9) in the other regional semifinal game at 6 p.m. EST. The Chassell-Munising game is scheduled to start at 7:45 p.m. EST.

– – –

Chassell 12 12 12 16 — 52

Ontonagon 10 8 8 11 — 37

Chassell — Pietila 4, Hokenson 10, Huhta 13, Allen 7, Danison 16, Rautiola 2. F: 15; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 8-12; 3-point field goals: None.

Ontonagon — Weisinger 3, Ella Menigoz 8, Labyak 5, Lutz 4, Kolpack 5, Wardynski 12. F: 16; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 12-19; 3-point field goals: Ella Menigoz, Lutz, Wardynski.