Local basketball seasons are back in full swing

Back row from left to right, Brandon Thompson, Jaden Janke and Jacob Iacono. Front row from left to right, Devin Schmitz and Brendan LeClaire. (Bryce Derouin/Daily Mining Gazette)

And we’re back. 

Just like last year, I’ll have a weekly column where I’ll discuss the local high school basketball scene. I’ll also include my rankings of the top five teams — boys and girls — in our area at the time. 

Before we get started, am I going to use this space to remind everyone that I went 7 for 8 on my district title picks last year? Yes. Yes, I am. Shoutout to the Jeffers girls for being the one team to prove me wrong. 


1. Calumet (0-0)

Last game: None. The Dec. 5 matchup at Jeffers is now Dec. 16. 

Next game: Tonight at West Iron County (2-0).

Before the season, I went back and forth on who should be here for the girls. But the fact Calumet returns seven girls who played on last season’s district championship team, along with Chassell’s 62-58 loss to the L’Anse Purple Hornets on Nov. 28, puts the Copper Kings at the top spot despite not having played a game yet this season. 

Another reason I put them ahead of Chassell: They beat the Panthers 58-43 last season.

Calumet’s biggest issue this season will be how the team replaces the 18 points and 13 rebounds per game of last season’s West-PAC Player of the Year, Hailey Wickstrom. Brooke Kariniemi proved herself to be a reliable option in the paint and can also knock down the 3. Lea Bjorn, who has spent the last two seasons on varsity primarily as a defensive stopper, has the athleticism to be a No. 1 scoring option. She also has the leadership experience of having a team rely on her after Calumet’s state semifinal volleyball run.

Calumet also returns Celia Kiilunen after she showed flashes of offensive potential last season as a sophomore. Kiilunen scored 19 points in a 55-54 loss to Petoskey at Marquette. 

But the one area that’s not of concern is Calumet’s athleticism. The Copper Kings’ speed and quickness in its full-court press will suffocate opposing teams. 

2. Houghton (1-0)

Last game: 56-30 win over Baraga on Nov. 28.

Next game: Friday at Negaunee (2-0).

It was only one game, but Houghton’s senior duo of Kara Pietila and Harlee Froberg looked comfortable taking over for Sloane Zenner and Tawna Ryynanen as the Gremlins’ top scoring options. Pietila scored 21 points on 10 of 19 shooting in the win over Baraga, while Froberg added 20 points on 7 of 13 shooting (3 of 5 from 3). They’ll need to continue to shoulder the scoring responsibility until senior point guard Madi Dillinger can return from injury. Once she’s back, Houghton will have one of the more dynamic scoring guards in the U.P. to pair with Pietila and Froberg. 

With Houghton back in Class C this season, Friday’s matchup with Negaunee could be a potential regional semifinal matchup if both teams win their district titles. We’re obviously a long way from that, but it’ll be Houghton’s first look at Negaunee’s Natalie Bartle. The 5-foot-6 guard transferred from Arizona and lives with relatives now. She was named the Region Offensive Player of the Year while at Ridge High School in Tucson, Arizona, where she scored over 1,000 points in her career. Bartle is already committed to Colorado Mesa University. 

3. L’Anse (2-0)

Last game: 66-22 win over Lake Linden-Hubbell.

Next game: Friday home against Westwood (0-1).

For the second straight season, L’Anse starts the season 2-0 in a similar fashion: a solid win over an established Chassell team and a blowout victory over LL-H. 

Last season after the win over LL-H, L’Anse coach Scott Lloyd believed his team was ready to compete with the top powers such as Calumet and Houghton. But L’Anse went 6-13 the rest of the season. 

With Addison Mattson (17 points per game so far) as the top returner from last season, the young Purple Hornets may have just been a year away from taking that next step. With a win Friday against Westwood, it’s a real possibility L’Anse starts 6-0 before a matchup at Calumet on Dec. 21. 

4. Chassell (1-1)

Last game: 64-8 win over Republic-Michigamme on Dec. 1. 

Next game: Tuesday at Baraga (0-2).

Chassell started 2017-18 as the dominant team that some predicted. The Panthers jumped out to an 18-4 lead over L’Anse and appeared poised to start the season with a dominant victory. But thanks to L’Anse’s resiliency, Chassell’s dreams of a 20-0 season were dashed. Still, that shouldn’t diminish the potential this team has. Anytime you return every person off a 15-6 squad and have two of your best players — Milly Allen and Sydney Danison — gain AAU experience, you’re bound to be one of the top teams in the area, if not the U.P. 

5. Ewen-Trout Creek (1-0)

Last game: 44-31 win against Baraga on Nov. 30.

Next game: Dec. 8 home against Lake Linden-Hubbell. 

The postponement of Tuesday’s game against Chassell would have served as a great indicator of where the Panthers are. 

Last season, a back injury to Maddy Cronkright played a large factor in E-TC losing five of six games down the stretch. But with her returning, along with freshman Elise Besonen — who was an All-U.P. selection as an eighth grader after averaging 16 points per game while shooting 40 percent from 3 — the Panthers should be looked at as true contenders for the conference and district titles. 

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1. Dollar Bay (0-0)

Next game: Tonight at home against Jeffers (0-1). 

Did you expect anything else? 

If they the Blue Bolts take care of business, they should be ranked No. 1 in the U.P. in Class D by the time the first poll comes out. And really, you could make a case they should be ranked top five in the state, perhaps No. 2 behind Southfield Christian. That’s the kind of respect you deserve when you lose to North Central by just two points and return all of the major pieces from last season. 

And the scary thing? The Blue Bolts are even better now, and that’s from personal experience. 

After playing against the Dollar Bay kids in open gym, you quickly realize coach Jesse Kentala isn’t lying when he says his guys have been in the gym all offseason. Devin Schmitz, who scored 40 points against North Central, is faster with a sharper handle; Jaden Janke has post moves and more strength to go with his 3-point shooting, and Jacob Iacono is still the hardest working person on the court but with a more well-rounded offensive game. Add in a defensive stopper and consistent facilitator in Brendan LeClaire, along with the Blue Bolts getting Brandon Thompson back from injury– another guy who can go off for 20 or more points in a game — and you have the area’s top boys team. 

Dollar Bay will be favored in each of its games this season, but the team opens with four teams who pose their own challenges. Jeffers’ Carson Turner scored 25 points in an overtime loss to Bessemer and is one of the area’s top players. Bessemer and Ontonagon have the size that the Blue Bolts could potentially struggle with, and Chassell and Lake Linden-Hubbell match up, athletically, with Dollar Bay. 

2. Calumet (0-0)

Next game: Tonight at Negaunee (0-1)

The Copper Kings are quietly the defending West-PAC and district champions. Usually overlooked by other Class C powers, Calumet may finally have the talent to compete with other top teams in the U.P. 

The scoring will likely be led by junior Matt Ojala, who benefitted from his dedication to the weight room and his body finally growing, putting him at 6-foot-1. He has the talent and potential to have a breakthrough season like Lake Linden-Hubbell’s Arthur Lyons did in 2015-16 when he averaged 28 points per game. Ojala will likely not score that much due to Calumet’s halfcourt style, but he has the potential to light it up each night. 

3. Ewen-Trout Creek (1-0)

Last game: 53-48 win over Ontonagon.

Next game: Tonight at Hancock.

Michigan Tech commit Jake Witt scored 28 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and finished with five blocks in E-TC’s win over Ontonagon. And according to coach Brad Besonen, he’s twice as explosive and athletic as last season. I didn’t believe it at first since Witt was one of the most athletic players I’ve seen at the high school level, but after watching two of his dunks, I saw what Besonen was talking about. 

In one dunk, Witt caught the ball along the baseline, did one power dribble and slammed home a two-handed dunk on his defender. Then, off a putback, he caught his own rebound and dunked so hard with two people around him that the entire basket began to shake.

I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of size, strength and athleticism in the U.P. How teams defend him going forward will be interesting. 

4. Chassell (1-0)

Last game: 72-30 win over Watersmeet.

Next game: Dec. 7 home against Baraga. 

Just like last season, Chassell will start the season 3-0 barring a major upset from Baraga or Republic-Michigamme. We won’t know more about Chassell until the Panthers go to Jeffers on Dec. 14 and Dollar Bay on Dec. 19. The Panthers have the athleticism to match up with those teams, but if they can get consistent offense, then they could be a conference contender. 

5. Jeffers (0-1)

Last game: 71-63 OT loss to Bessemer. 

Next game: at Dollar Bay tonight. 

If there’s such a thing as a “good” loss, Jeffers had it against Bessemer. The Speedboys are projected as one of the top teams in the Porcupine Mountain Division, and Jeffers nearly pulled off the upset despite Carson Turner, David Jukkala and Brett Hill fouling out. 

The Jets proved their pressing, uptempo style can work against a good team. Keteri mentioned in his postgame interview that each Jeffers player shoots 200 3s a day. It showed when the Jets made 12 3s in the loss.