‘This is what it is all about’: Blue Bolts give thanks to community for support
DOLLAR BAY — If a person walked to the entrance near the Dollar Bay-Tamarack City High School Gym on Monday evening, they would have noticed that the glass on the doors was adorned with a simple statement, “We are DB: Regional Champs.” In March, for the third straight year, the Blue Bolts had gone on a significant playoff run with the last two runs ending in the state semifinals against Southfield Christian.
Still, Monday night, there was a festive atmosphere in the gym as the varsity and junior varsity teams joined with kids from the elementary and middle schools on the floor for impromptu basketball games as part of the Blue Bolts’ informal thank you to the community that has supported them through all the ups and downs of a long basketball season.
For coach Jesse Kentala and his players, Monday’s event was as important as any game during the season.
“This is what it is all about,” said Kentala. “This is why we do it. Basketball is a great game, but it is a game. Win and lose, we are still proud of these kids and the effort they put in. We are proud of them when they win, but we are more proud of them in a situation like this where we are community-building, working on playing basketball with kids, playing one-on-one games with first graders. Just creating good people, not just good basketball players.”
Once parents and their kids made it past the bake sale in the school entrance and stepped into the gym, the shouts of little kids getting to share their floor with their heroes filled the school and could easily be heard down the halls.
The elementary kids grow up idolizing the high school players, and it has been that way in Dollar Bay since this crop of seniors were that age.
“It feels great to give back,” said Brendan LeClaire. “I remember being a little kid, looking up (to the high school team), even though the teams weren’t that great back then, but I just looked up to those guys like they were gods. I remember how it felt and I definitely want to give that feeling to younger kids, build that family up because that is what we need to do.
“We are such a small school that we need to it close-knit. I think we do that well.”
LeClaire touched upon something that his coach talked about during the season, family. Kentala is extremely proud of how his players have come together as a “family,” and after embracing that concept amongst themselves, they have moved quickly to including the rest of the community in their extended family.
“You can’t put a value on this,” said Kentala. “I think small matters, meaning for small schools, it is our identity. Basketball is our window to the community.
“It’s a way for these students to interact as students, as athletes, to give the community something to be proud of. We’re small, we don’t have a lot here.”
A senior, LeClaire earned All-U.P. Second Team honors this year and was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Copper Mountain Conference. Kentala figures that LeClaire might be the winningest player in school history, given that he has been part of the last three runs the Blue Bolts have been on.
For LeClaire, the entire experience has been nothing short of surreal. In fact, it still has not set in for him that was part of a boys basketball team that made it all the way to the Breslin Center on the Michigan State campus twice in the last two years.
“It’s something unreal,” LeClaire said. “It’s crazy to think about. It was only a dream of ours to go to the Breslin. We always talked about it, but to actually go there, the first year was crazy. Going back the second year, I don’t even know if it has set in.
“I cannot even realize it. I cannot even tell you how it feels. I cannot find words to explain it because it is still so crazy in my mind.”
Kentala echoed his senior’s feelings.
“It’s surreal, it’s exciting,” he said. “It’s beyond anything I could have dreamed of or imagined as a coach.
“We are all proud of what we have been able to accomplish… It is a euphoric feeling.”
After getting pummeled by 71-32 in 2018 by Southfield, the Blue Bolts closed the gap a bit in 2019, losing 55-28.
This year’s Blue Bolts squad learned a lot from the 2017-18 team that went undefeated until they got to East Lansing.
“In all those clutch games and all those must wins, (we) felt a lot more calm,” LeClaire said. “Even coming into the Breslin and playing Southfield Christian, I felt we did a lot better. We cleaned up things.”
They were not even supposed to get that far this year.
When a team loses the top two scorers in school history and graduates four of five starters, it is expected to take a step backwards. Dollar Bay simply refused to do that. Early in the season, it appeared they might be trending in that direction, but by the midpoint, there was clearly only one goal in mind.
“It definitely took a team effort,” said LeClaire. “I think that, this year, we had a great team. It was very balanced and everyone did their part. We had to learn how to play with each other.
“In the beginning of the season, we didn’t do so hot. We were having close games. We really starting figuring it out towards the end. Everyone was coming up. Everyone was stepping up and realizing how to play with each other and how to fit to their roles at the right time.”
Kentala feels a real sense of pride being around a group of kids that has learned so much from the past two seasons.
“I am just very blessed to be around this group of kids,” he said. “It’s so awesome to see hard work get rewarded.”
Last season, the Blue Bolts had the opportunity to play a regular season game in the Wood Gym at Michigan Tech against the Ewen-Trout Creek Panthers. The two teams’ fans filled the gym, even for the junior varsity game. It was just a small glimpse of the amount of support the community of Dollar Bay throws behind the Blue Bolts every time they are on the court.
“The community support… has been such a pleasant surprise,” said Kentala. “I’ve been a part of this community, I’ve been around here my whole life. It’s small, and everybody knows each other.
“To see so many people who are actually still here and then to see so many people from the broader community, people watching from all over the world (is amazing). I even had somebody texting me from Nebraska.”
Kentala wanted to share a final thanks for all the support his team receives.
“There’s a lot of pieces that have to happen to make something like this go,” he said. “The sports boosters, for example, are putting this (event) on. The parents for everything they have done. There are just so many people to thank.”