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Franti reflects on Hall of Fame career

Jason Juno/Daily Globe (Ironwood) Ontonagon’s Dick Franti is retiring after a long and successful coaching career.

Ontonagon has never had to worry about the girls basketball program.

First there was Gladys Chamberlain, who led the Gladiators to a state runner-up finish in 1974, the program’s second year.

And in 1984, Dick Franti took over.

Since then, he has taken Ontonagon to state three times, won more than 500 games and been inducted into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.

And now, 35 years later, Franti is calling it a career, completing his run as just the second to ever coach the Gladiator girls.

Franti, whose pressing defenses were famous for giving teams fits, is proud of that stability and the fact that in their worst season, they still went to the district final.

But he refuses to take much of the credit, instead giving that to the girls and boys he coached through the years.

Give him credit for helping them come back from a 15-point deficit in a state quarterfinal a decade ago. He defers to the competitiveness of his players. Tell him you thought his teams were always prepared, he recalls a game they lost to Calumet, 61-16, and said, “I don’t think we were very prepared for that.”

Ontonagon simply had good kids, he said.

“It’s really a kids game,” Franti said earlier this summer. “To me, it’s not about the coaching other than the coaches do have an influence. They can help make a difference, but the kids play.”

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The numbers show that Franti’s teams were consistently excellent.

He coached the boys and girls for two years at Bergland before coming to Ontonagon to coach the girls in 1984. He coached the boys from 1990 to 2007 when the Michigan girls season was moved to the winter. He chose to stay with the girls and did so until his retirement.

His final record: 564-268 with the girls, 245-147 with the boys for a total of 809-416 in 37 total seasons with the girls and 18 with the boys.

His girls teams won 21 conference titles, 15 district championships, three regional trophies and they made three trips to the state tournament, including a runner-up finish in 1988. His boys and girls teams won the district four times in his short tenure at Berglund.

“I guess the thing that I’m most proud of is we’ve always been pretty competitive,” Franti said. “We had a few down years but not many. I think the worst year we ever had we made it to the district final. We were 9-13, but we made it to the district final. I’m proud of that because to me that’s what I always tried to preach: Play hard, don’t quit, be competitive. It’s not always going to go your way for sure, but don’t stop trying.”

That’s also what he enjoyed the most, the competition. It kept him up a lot of nights, some because a game went so well and some because they didn’t.

Ewen-Trout Creek coach Jacky Besonen, who played and coached against his teams, said it won’t be the same without the competitive, funny Franti on the sideline this winter.

“I loved the fire he brought into every game as well as the humor,” she said. “One game I remember in particular, a player of his fell on the floor. He asked her, ‘What are you doing down there? Looking for a quarter?'”

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The 1987 team could have been Franti’s first trip to state.

Instead it helped drive the 1988 team to Grand Valley State for the state tournament.

“We had a real good team,” Franti said. “But just before the season ended, the girls had a dance and a couple of them decided to break some training rules. There was a fight that broke out amongst the girls at the dance.”

The athletic policy was pretty ironclad back then. Break any of the rules and your season is over.

“We had a pretty good chance of making a run that year, too, but we lost four, five girls off the team,” he said.

But that just made them determined to make 1988 their year. And it certainly was. They lost a heartbreaker, 41-39, in the Class C state title game to St. Joseph Michigan Catholic. Kelly Rose (6-2, 170), who went to play at Louisville, was a force, but the shots from the corner by Tanya Stapulionis killed them, too, Franti remembered.

“We had pretty good talent and they were determined,” Franti said. “Like I said, it’s a kids game and that group of kids decided they were going to do something.”

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Ontonagon’s boys teams may not have been consistently as good as the girls, but they had their moments as well.

In the late 90s, Ontonagon beat Carney-Nadeau — “that was No. 1 and going to go down and win state” — in the regional semifinal in Marquette. They stayed the night there, and at 2 a.m., the bed check didn’t go well.

“The kids are still playing Playstation or whatever the game was at that time,” Franti said. “We play the next day against Bark River (in the final) and run out of gas in the second half.”

Several years later, Ontonagon met Crystal Falls Forest Park in the regional final. Ontonagon was called for a foul on the 3-point shooter in the final second. He made one of the three to give the Trojans the win.

“Those were heartbreaking losses,” Franti said. “I really enjoyed coaching the boys, too. Losing those two were tough to take. I think the girls program has been pretty strong year in and year out and our boys program is more up and down. When they’re up, they’re fun to watch and the community support is outstanding.”

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Franti didn’t pass harsh Upper Peninsula winters on a snowmobile or at a ski hill. He was in the gym the whole school year.

In 2007, he had to make a choice between the boys and girls as Michigan moved the girls from the fall to the winter.

“I enjoyed doing both of them,” he said. “As a teacher, it made the school year go by a lot quicker, you always had something to look forward to, something to be planning for. The kids in the classroom may not be interested in what happened in a particular section in history, but they sure as heck are wondering how we’re going to do in the next game against whoever.”

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Franti chose to stick with the girls and in 2009, they were back in the state tournament.

They used second-half comebacks to beat a very good Watersmeet team in the district, Baraga in the regional and favored Cedarville in the quarterfinal. Ontonagon followed a 15-point deficit with 19 straight points to score the upset of the Trojans.

Cedarville’s standout point guard picked up her fourth foul during that run.

“When big mo switches, watch out. We started making a run and even when she came back in, the tide was rolling,” Franti said. “They just needed a spark and her or the referees or the situation, whatever it was, turned the tide.

“They were competitive. Janele (Linna) was a competitor. The girls that played with her, when they rallied around each other, they were good, they were fun to watch.”

He is sure he was scratching his head when they were 15 down.

“But hope is not gone until it’s done. The fat lady may be behind the curtain, but she hasn’t sung yet,” he said.

“I remember we were down maybe a point or two or whatever and we got the ball back and ran it down on what must have been a turnover and Janele brought it down on the left-hand side and they passed it to her,” Franti said. “She got ready to launch that 3 and I was going ‘No, no!’. And she made it and I said, ‘Good shot.’ But that’s what I mean, it’s a kids game. They have to make decisions and you have to live with them.”

Ontonagon lost to New Lothrop in the semifinal.

In 2010, Ontonagon made it back to state, led by Linna, this time named to the all-state team, and Lauren Siren. Perhaps its biggest test in the tournament came at home against Watersmeet in the district final, coming back from a second-half deficit and getting key contributions from other players as Linna had just rolled her ankle two days prior.

“That was one of the better crowds I’ve ever seen,” Franti said.

“I don’t think it was as difficult,” Franti said of the 2010 run. “They had been through the wars. We had good, confident kids.”

They lost to Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes in the state semifinal.

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Franti’s teams have always been known to press because, well, it works most of the time.

“I’ve always seen that as a way to use your defense to create some offense, but it’s not new,” he said. “One of the things you have to do is dribble, and if they can’t dribble and keep their head up, there’s going to be some issues. If they put their head down and they can’t see where they’re throwing the ball, that’s an issue. The teams that can, teams that are good playing with their heads up, they’re difficult to press or the teams with a good-sized kid they can put in the middle, they can help find the open one.

“When you’re pressing, you’re taking chances, you’re trying to probe and get some weaknesses exposed, but at the same time, you’re leaving some openings.

“Even when I played in high school, we pressed. It didn’t always work, but it worked enough I thought it was effective.”

It really worked when Cedarville’s point guard was on the bench during the state ’09 state quarterfinal. It worked when Ontonagon blew out an up-and-coming Bark River-Harris team in the ’10 regional final.

It worked an awful lot.

Besonen, now E-TC’s coach, was one of the point guards able to handle it when she played. But she’s seen it go the other way, too.

“It gave me extra work for the game, that’s for sure,” she said. “But as a player, we had a pretty good team, so we were able to handle the press. As a coach, my girls had to be good ballhandlers and not freak out. The years I did not have confident ballhandlers, the press was a nightmare. Turnover after turnover and layup after layup. It made for a long night. The pressure would take my girls right out of the game. However, the years I had strong ballhandlers, we were able to effectively swing the ball and pass it up court.”

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Ironwood native Tim Routheaux will be the third to ever coach the Ontonagon girls, while one of Franti’s former players, Brittany Turin, will coach the boys.

Routheaux will also take over for Franti as athletic director.

“My hope is that he sticks around,” Franti said. “I know he has plans and goals and dreams in his life, too.”

Turin takes over for Andy Borseth.

“As long as she gets the support that she needs, she’ll be fine,” Franti said. “She was a good player. I know the group she has is a group she’s had since they’ve been young kids. She did elementary with them, junior high with them, JV with them. They know her and she knows them.”

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