IRON COUNTY—The ball goes up on the 2013-14 girls basketball season this Tuesday, Dec. 3.
And while all this week’s games will be away, Iron County fans get to see both teams on their home floor before long: Forest Park and West Iron County will both play twice at home next week.
This week, they are on the road. The Wykons visit Hancock on Dec. 3, in the first game for new varsity coach Joe Serbentas, and the Lady Trojans visit North Central Dec. 3 and Bark River-Harris on Dec. 6.
So what’s in store for the teams? We talked to their coaches last week.
West Iron County: In 2012-13, the Wykons had a 10-10 regular season and 4-4 in the West Pac Conference. They put it together to win their third straight District 95 championship, stopping Iron Mountain 45-30 in the championship game on IM’s floor.
West Pac champ Houghton ended their season in the regional semifinals with a 70-40 decision. The Wykons finished the year 12-11.
After the season, Coach Mike Dallavalle stepped down after a long, successful tenure, and Joe Serbentas, his long-time junior varsity coach, was promoted to the varsity post. Eric Ghiggia is the Wykons girls’ new JV coach.
“It’s made it easy,” Serbentas said. “I’ve been the JV coach for nine to 10 years. The girls know me—I’ve coached most of them already.”
In short: Serbentas knows the system, and the girls know Serbentas. “The girls have taken well to the transition. The girls respected Coach Dallavalle and did well for him. They know what to expect of me and understand I’m going to push them hard, just like Coach Dallavalle did.
“I’m looking forward to the season and the challenge ahead.”
Graduation took Kylee Erickson, WIC’s point guard for the last four years, and Emelie Christensen, one of WIC’s big girls inside. “Others are going to have to step up and take those roles.”
Top returnees are Megan Miatech inside and top defender Cassilyn Pellizzer. Serbentas thinks Alexis Golfis is ready to take the point guard role after playing next to Erickson last year.
“The transition at first is going to be difficult,” the coach said. “We have a pretty young team—only three seniors (Miatech, Pellizzer and Brittanie Barry). The three seniors “hopefully will be good leaders and help the young kids be prepared for games.”
The rest of the team is juniors and sophomores. A young team, but a team that’s willing to work hard. They’re quick learners.”
Up from the JV team are junior Tori Harris (“sparkplug on defense”) and four sophomores--Erin Angeli (good shooter from outside), Lizzi Pellizzer, Monica Eagloski and Lexi Gasperini.
Maddie Waara, who injured a knee late last season, won’t be available, and neither will Sierra Rasmussen, who is not playing.
Forest Park: What’s a six-letter word that describes Forest Park’s girls basketball team?
The girls had a very brief preseason—their first game (Dec. 3 at North Central) is just 12 days after their volleyball state semifinal match. No matter. “We call that normal,” Coach Jeff Syrjanen said.
He worked with seven girls who didn’t play volleyball before the others arrived and things got busy. They scrimmaged L’Anse last Wednesday and met Norway on Sunday. “We figured it was best to get right into it with some live action, because we don’t have a lot of time to prepare.”
You could say the team did its preseason practices during the summer: The Lady Trojans took part in three team camps, at Petoskey, Ishpeming and Phelps, Wis. going up against teams like Rhinelander, Northland Pines, Hurley, Marquette, Houghton, St. Ignace and top Class B schools from lower Michigan.
“We played some stiff competition, so it was really good for us,” Syrjanen said. “We figured the volleyball team was going to make a nice run, so we wanted to go over a lot of things over the summer.”
The time was also used to help a freshman girl targeted for the varsity—guard Abby Nylund—to learn the team’s system quickly.
The short-term challenge is getting the players’ “basketball legs” back. In volleyball, after all, you don’t run up and down the floor all night.
Last year the Lady Trojans were 23-2. The first loss was by one-point to Kingsford in late January. The other was to eventual Class D state champs St. Ignace in the state quarterfinals. This year, the Saints are back in Class C.
Of the 14 girls on the varsity team, 10 are back from last year. Since Forest Park has gone deep into the tournament these last few years, all have added experience in crucial games.
With all that returning experience, Syrjanan said. ”Nobody feels sorry for me.”
FP lost seniors Gina Graff and Ronnie Jaeger from last year and adds three girls from JV: juniors Catherine Bloomburg, Suzi Toivonen and Rachel Roose, along with the freshman, Nylund.
The returnees are sophomore Maria Stankewicz (an all-year starter at guard as a freshman); juniors Adel Isaacson, Sierra Robarge, Kelsi Hendrickson; and seniors Mary Grandahl, Samantha Nylund, Kaitlyn Bradley, Jessica Bawyn, Kendra Campbell and Lexi Gussert.
We haven’t mentioned Gussert yet, have we? Trust me, for these last few years, it has not been easy writing about the Lady Trojans without focusing on Lexi almost exclusively.
Gussert’s numbers last year: 809 points (32.5 per game), 49% from the floor, 47% on three-pointers, made 93 triples. She set a school record with 50 points in a game and had four games with 40 or more, 17 with 30 or more.
Two-time all-U.P. Class D player of the year. Lexi enters her senior season with 1,891 total points scored—109 away from the 2,000 mark. She probably reaches that milestone next week.
One more thing to consider: At nearly every game last year, Division 1 coaches and scouts watched her every move and analyzed every action. Gussert, her teammates and coaches knew about it, of course, and felt the pressure to perform well. It couldn’t have been easy.
All that pressure is gone now. Lexi has officially committed to Michigan State, the coaches and scouts will go elsewhere, and Gussert and her teammates only have to worry about each night’s opponent—and the target they will wear all year.
Syrjanen sounds especially wary of the Skyline Conference and the first week of the season: a North Central team that gave FP a major scare last year and an improving Bark River team three days later, both on the road. “I remember two years ago that happened to us, and we lost our first two games.
“We know the Skyline Conference is tough every year. We hope we don’t trip too many times, especially early.” He also talked about his nonconference opponents, including Kingsford, Iron Mountain and West Iron.
But let’s be honest here: The Lady Trojans’ season won’t really start until Feb. 24, when the District 127 tournament starts at Wakefield-Marenisco High School.
“We’re playing for the end of the year,” Syrjanen admits. “We’re focusing on trying to be better. Each week, each day we go to practice, we want to be better the next day.”
With a dedicated, experienced, hard-working team, that is a do-able goal. “They work hard, they want to be in the gym, and they want to win.”
Having arguably the state’s best high school girls player on the team certainly helps.