Teammates Adam Newby and Ryan Rogers go head-to-head during a West Iron boys basketball practice last week.
IRON COUNTY—Boys basketball season opens on the road this week for both West Iron County and Forest Park. The Wykons visited Westwood Dec. 9 in their only game. Forest Park has a pair of Skyline Conference games away: at Mid Peninsula on Dec. 9 and at Republic-Michigamme on Dec. 12.
Forest Park’s first home game is Dec. 16—against the Wykons. West Iron won’t play at home until a Dec. 20 battle with L’Anse.
Trojans Coach Chris Nocerini knows the early season drill well: A long football playoff season means a short transition to basketball. After Forest Park lost in the grid semifinals Nov. 23, he held three voluntary practices over Thanksgiving and then gave the team four days off. “Some of them told me they didn’t know what to do with the four days off,” he said.
Nearly everyone made all the practices. “They’re eager to go.” Forest Park scrimmaged Iron Mountain last Monday.
“It’s on-the-job training. If we only played one game, I’d be worried. But there’s 20 of them.”
Last year, Forest Park was 12-8 in the regular season (8-6 in the Skyline Conference) and caught fire in the post-season, winning the district title and stopping Chassell in the regional semis before losing to state semifinalists North Central in the regional title game. Overall: 15-9.
Many of last year’s Trojans are this year’s Trojans: Four of the starters at the regional finals are back, seniors Austin Snell, Jeff Johnson and Raymond Tomasik and junior Lee Graff. “They picked it up right away, They know what I want out of them, and it helps with the new guys.”
Gone/graduated are Derek Aberly, L.J. Burns and Chris Hilberg. “We have three younger guys who are going to have to step in,” Nocerini said. “I know they’re up to the challenge, but it will take a while to get them to the speed we want.”
The Trojans have six seniors: Snell, Johnson, Tomasik, Mitch Bal, Hank Steiro and Cam Davis; three juniors: Graff, Austin Carlson and Brett Smithson; one sophomore: Kam Krajewski; and one freshman, Daniel Nocerini.
“And we have four sophomores on the JVs who are more than capable,” the coach added. “I really feel comfortable with the depth of our program.” Nocerini will again be assisted by Jason Price and JV Coach Dave Graff.
Short-term, the team is focusing on defense, letting the offense catch up later. “I always love our team playing hard defense.” FP will also focus on fundamentals. “If we can’t do the fundamentals right, then nothing else falls in place.”
Asked about the Skyline Conference, Nocerini talks about the strong points of all the teams. But the big dog is North Central. “They were in the semis last year, they have nine seniors returning. They’re going to be a tough team.
“But they’re not the total focus of the season.” The season comes into sharp focus on March 3, when the district tournament starts at Ewen-Trout Creek.
West Iron County is also working hard on fundamentals, reports Coach Dan Schive. “Some good, some spotty,” he said about early practices. “But we’ll get it all pieced together and make sure it works.”
The Wykons’ big problem this year is lack of height. Schive talked about an interview he read with Westwood’s coach (WIC’s first opponent).
“He was complaining how small he was, and he’s got two 6-3 guys and a 6-2 guy. I was thinking, If you want to see small, wait till we get up there on Monday.”
Seniors Andy Ridolphi and Brock Hopkins are 6-1. “That’s it. Everybody else is 5-11, 5-10, 6-foot. Because we’re small, we need to be really good technically.” That’s the challenge.
Last year’s Wykons went 13-7 in the regular season and tied for the West Pac Conference title with Houghton at 6-2. They lost to Norway in the district championship game for a 14-8 overall record. Key players lost that team are Austin Waara and Tyler Stafford.
The team has nine seniors: Adam Newby, Ridolphi, Ryan Rogers, Aren Newby, Joe Pisoni, Hopkins, Anthony Rule, Colton Pangrazzi and Tylor Capadagli.
Juniors are Brandon Olson, Nick Helgemo, Trey Manitta, Tommy Kesti-Kostari, Ryan Maki and Michael Barker. There are no sophs or freshmen on varsity.
Adam Newby is the lone long-time veteran: This will be his third year as starter. Ridolphi played a lot last year, and Pisoni and Hopkins got a few starts. “We’re banking on balanced scoring and supreme effort,” the coach said.
“We know we’re not the biggest team. You deal with what you’ve got: We’ve got to be a better rebounding team than last year, and that would help out immensely. We also have to play better defense.”
The Wykons, he said, don’t have anyone who can explode for 25 points. “If I can get six guys who average 10 points, we’re in pretty good shape. And we can do it—we just have to be smooth.”
Some of the Wykons are fast, especially Rogers, but there’s not enough team speed to make them a pressing team. “They’re very athletic—they’re just not real big. We have to find the correct speed and the correct intensity to make sure everything is working.”
West Pac rivals to watch for are Calumet and Hancock, but the biggest challenge is L’Anse. “L’Anse is loaded—they have their whole starting team back, and LaBerge transferred from Houghton.” The Purple Hornets help the Wykons open their home season on Dec. 20.
Don’t look for cream puffs on the non-conference schedule, either: Iron Mountain, Kingsford, Norway, Escanaba, Forest Park, Ishpeming, North Dickinson, Westwood, Florence. “We’ve got our hands full this year.”
WIC gets no real holiday break, with a home game vs. Escanaba on Dec. 27. Four of the Wykons’ first six games are away, and so are four of the last five. Between Jan. 6 and Feb. 4, they play seven of nine at the Greenlund Gym.