IRON RIVER—For Coach Mike Dallavalle and the West Iron County girls basketball team, two dates stand out on the schedule: Dec. 16 and Jan. 20.
That’s when the Wykons face Houghton, last year’s West Pac Conference champion and the team that eliminated the Wykons at last year’s regional semifinals. West Iron finished last season with a 19-4 record (17-3 regular season, 6-2 in the West Pac Conference), and three of those losses were to the Gremlins.
The season starts at home against Calumet next Friday, Dec. 2.
Opponents should have few problems scouting the Wykons, because this year’s team is nearly the same last year’s. The Wykons lost Desi Rasmussen to graduation, but all the other main pieces are back, including Jaclyn Waara, named to the West Pac first team last year, and Shannon Koski, voted to the second team.
The girls are working hard—harder than you may expect. After the end of one practice last week, as the boys team started their practice, several girls were still running shuttle sprints along one side of the floor. Stop, start, stop, start, back and forth, back and forth. Just like the regular season. Going all out.
The returnees: Waara, Koski, Kylee Erickson, Emily Aho, Joanna Pellizzer and Megan Miatech. “We’ve got a real solid core returning,” Dallavalle said. “These girls are very familiar with our offense—they are working on executing it better.”
The Wykon struggled early in both their district tournament games last spring but wound up with the district title. “That built a lot of character for this team,” their coach said. “Even when we played Houghton at regionals, they got out to a quick, big lead, but we fought back. It was a matter of experience.
“I think they know now what they need to accomplish to get to Houghton’s level.”
New cast members are Emilie Christensen and Mallory Tomasoski from last year’s JV team and Alexis Heimerl and Taylor Miilu, who didn’t play last year. Heimerl and Christensen should boost the Wykons’ rebounding with Rasmussen gone.
Add in two girls who haven’t played since eighth grade and the Wykons’ roster is up to 12. “First time we’ve been able to practice 5-on-5 with just the varsity team in probably three or four years.”
During the summer, a few of the girls played in the Iron River summer league, and the team went to the Iron Mountain team camp in June. “I thought we were pretty successful,” Dallavalle said. “We were missing Joanna both days and Jaclyn for one day—I thought we did very well without them.”
Some of the girls worked out on their own and are stronger because of it. Conditioning is key. “I think last year our conditioning paid off in the district games. But when you get to regionals and play a team like Houghton, it’s a little different level, so I think we realize we weren’t quite there yet.”
The coach also wants the girls to run their half-court game more effectively. “We’re a pretty good running team, but when it comes to the point where we have to slow it down because we’re playing a well-disciplined defensive team, we need to be able to be precise on our screens and our cuts. We haven’t done a very good job of that in the past.”
In the West Pac, Dallavalle expects L’Anse to be much improved. And then there’s Houghton. “Extremely tough this year.”
“But these girls are very focused. We have a lot of fun in practice, and yet they work hard the whole time we’re here. So it’s going to be a very exciting year and a lot of fun to watch.”
• West Iron opens its season with two home games: Calumet on Dec. 2 and Iron Mountain on Dec. 6. They visit Norway on Dec. 12, and then there’s the big game at Houghton on Dec. 16.
The schedule-makers have been kind to the Wykon girls this season: No more than two consecutive away games and no three-game weeks all season. The Wykons play Norway twice this season, replacing the two Bessemer games.