Panther power: Chassell’s Jenna Pietila earns D4 Second Team honors as senior

CHASSELL — Chassell Panthers senior earned All-U.P. Second Team honors this week from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association. She was joined in the All-U.P. ranks by Paige Sleeman, who earned honorable mention.

First-year head coach Bill Sleeman was taking the challenge of girls basketball this season with the Chassell Panthers after years of running the boys’ team. To make matters even more difficult, Sleeman’s first girls team was trying to replace six of key contributors off a squad that finished second in the state in 2017-18.

By the end of the season, his Panthers squad finished with a record of 15-7 after opening the season 1-3.

“Those first few games were the learning curve that I knew we were going to have to go through,” said Sleeman.

Looking back at the season this week, he could zero in on why the Panthers had a strong season.

“In my opinion, Jenna’s First Team All-U.P. any day of the week,” said Sleeman. “There is no way Jenna shouldn’t have been on First Team. There are not five girls in the whole U.P. that did more for their team than what Jenna did for us.

“For my first season coaching girls, she far and away exceeded my expectations as far as everything she was able to do for us.”

Pietila, going into the season, was going to be a key cog in Sleeman’s team, given that she gained a lot of experience a year ago during the Panthers’ deep run, and she was the lone senior who had seen the floor, on average, a lot under former coach Brandi Hainault.

“I felt that Jenna played a huge role in that team going downstate,” Sleeman said. “To have gone from a role player the last two years to being really in charge of everything on the floor from a scoring standpoint, from a defensive standpoint, distributing the ball standpoint, she really had to do everything for us for us to be successful. She excelled at everything.”

Sleeman was also quick to praise the effort that Pietila put in, not only on the court, but also in practice and on the bench.

“(She is) one of the best athletes, leaders, that I have had the privilege to coach at Chassell,” he said. “I could not say enough about Jenna.

“She was the glue that did a lot of the extra things a lot of the time. I was very pleased to have a vocal leader, a leader by example, just somebody with high integrity, high character, to really lead our program.”

Having a player like Pietila make the transition for Sleeman much easier.

“Whether you are coaching boys or you are coaching girls, those are the types of players that make a program,” he said. “(The kind of player) that can really turn your program into something spectacular.

“It made the transition for me a lot easier having somebody like her that I could look to to really help everything transition a lot smoother.”

Sleeman also loved the fact that Pietila did not need to be the leader on the floor every night when it came to scoring.

“She was very smart in the sense that she knew when to get her shots,” he said. “She was able to pick her spots. She could be successful to help us be successful and also be able to distribute (the ball) to get everyone else involved.”

As if she did not already have a lot on her plate leading the Panthers, Pietila also served as a mentor to Sleeman’s daughter, Paige, who earned All-U.P. honorable mention as a freshman. Sleeman gushed about having Pietila around for Paige’s first season.

“As a father, having my daughter playing, I could not have asked for a better senior role model for my child to play under,” he said. “From that standpoint, it was an extra bonus for me to be able to have Paige play with Jenna for a year here.”

The younger Sleeman had a very solid debut for the Panthers, finding her confidence early and then helping take some of the offensive pressure off of Pietila.

“Once she (Paige) started to get more comfortable, used to the flow of the game, playing with all new girls, she was probably our leading scorer in the second half of the year.”

Having Pietila to draw attention away, Paige Sleeman thrived. Her father feels that, as she continues to grow and mature, she will create matchup issues all over the floor.

“(It was) definitely a successful freshman year for her,” said the elder Sleeman.