They Stand Alone Across The Bridge

It was Labor Day weekend, 1976. A group of high school girls repared for a trip. Destination: Detroit. Reason: To play some basketball.

“The custodian had put a camper in the back of my truck,” recalled Barb Crill, coach of the Redettes, the varsity girls basketball team from Marquette, “and a bunch of the ladies crammed in there.”

“We borrowed my parent's station wagon, and put some lawn chairs in the back of Barb's truck,” laughed Karen Levandoski Helmila, recalling the trip. “Can you imagine that! That would never happen today. Parents wouldn't allow it.”

Marquette's girls basketball squad hadn't lost a regular-season game in 22 years. Escanaba was the last team in the Upper Peninsula to defeat it.

“Barb said to us as incoming freshmen that we would win the state,” said Levandoski.

The girls had come close. In five years, Crill's squads had compiled a 93-5 regular-season record, including a 16-2 mark in 1973, a 19-0 record in 1974 and 17 straight victories in 1975.

In the fall of 1974, Marquette defeated Escanaba to win its district, then beat Grand Haven in its first regional contest. The run stopped against Grand Rapids Christian in the regional final, by the score of 47-43.

In 1975, the scores were, in a word, ridiculous. The team averaged 68 points a game to 25.9 for the opponents. In the district title contest, the Redettes whipped Sault Ste. Marie, 109-16. In the quarterfinals, they brushed aside Portage Central 72-18, before losing to Farmington Our Lady of Mercy, 62-57, in the semifinals of the MHSAA tournament. But they expected more.

So they packed it up and headed toward the Motor City, Crill's old stomping grounds, for the holiday. The coach had arranged some action against some old friends -- two scrimmages on Saturday and two on Sunday. Detroit Dominican, coached by Sue Kruszew ski, was one of the teams. Winners of the Class A title in 1973 and 1974, Dominican had what Marquette wanted.

Also that weekend, Marquette squared off against Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher and Marine City. Gallagher had made it to the quarterfinals in 1973. Marine City would finish the year with the Class B crown.

“Over the years we had played every

team in the U.P. that was decent,” said Crill. “The girls needed more.”

The Redettes responded to their coaches’ challenge, playing well in the workouts.

“The girls came back in shape from summer vacation,” said Crill after the trip. “Most had done a lot of work on their own, while others stay active playing other sports.”

A native of Allen Park, Crill had started coaching at University High in Ann Arbor in 1959. She instituted Marquette's girls program during the 1969-70 season, after leaving Highland Park for a position as an English teacher.

“We started here before their was any MHSAA (sanctioned) ball,” said Crill, who had coached girls teams in swimming, track, golf and tennis, plus boys gymnastics during the previous 17 years in the profession. "The girls provided their own uniforms. Th e principal provided a bus. We played everyone with a team. It got the interest going.

“These young ladies,” she said in reference to the members of the class of 1976, “we had helped them in junior high. They had a lot of good players. When these ladies were freshmen, they were ready to go.”

The nucleus was in place for a run at the title. Karen Meyers, the leading scorer on Northern Michigan University's basketball team and a former Redette, was returning for her fifth year as Crill's assistant. The team had lost All-U.P. players Jean Mor atti and Laurie Niles, but had strong replacements. The Levandoski twins, Karen and Kay, Cheryl Aho, Janet Hopkins, Sue Belanger and Caron Krueger were all seniors. Katie Miller, a senior transfer from Eau Claire, Wis., had joined the team. Forward Shelly Chapman, a junior had also won All-U.P. h onors. Sophomores Cynde Cory and Chris Moran were expected to be the first off the bench. Sue Micklow, Kate Jennings, Lisa Coombs, Mary Erspamer, Sue Nile and Sue Lakanen rounded out the squad.

Back in the U.P. following the holiday, it was business as usual. In the home opener, Marquette trounced Gladstone, 71-19, as 14 girls saw action. Next, they downed Negaunee, 87-21. Through 17 additional regular-season games, the result was the same.

“Seven opponents were unable to put 20 points on the board,” noted then Marquette Mining Journal sports editor Tom Pellow, in his pre-tournament write-up, “despite the fact that Crill usually played replacements following the intermission.”

Omitting a 2-0 forfeit by Harbor Springs, the Redettes improved their average from a year ago to 80.8 points per contest, while decreasing their opponents average to 25.2 per game.

The squad dumped Escanaba, 71-29, before a crowd of about 100 for the district title at Escanaba. Shelly Chapman scored a season-high 33 points to led the team.

In Grand Rapids for the regionals, the Big Red Machine defeated Benton Harbor, 64-55. Leading at the half by 25 points, Crill went to the bench. Again, Chapman led all scorers with 21 points, while Krueger added 16 and Hopkins added 13. In the regiona l final, the Redettes faced a Grand Rapids Union squad with a definite height advantage. Despite the partisan crowd, and a slim three-point lead at the end of the third quarter, Marquette emerged victorious, 48-34.

In the quarterfinals, the team defeated Lansing Eastern, 67-37, then disposed of Flushing, 62-46, in the semifinals. That left Farmington Our Lady of Mercy, in a rematch of the 1975 final. This time Marquette would not be denied, defeating the defendin g champs, 68-41. Chapman finished with 23, Hopkins poured in 19, and Krueger hit for 14 as Crill's starting five went the entire game without a substitution.

The team was the first Class A school from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to win an MHSAA basketball championship. The feat has not been repeated since.

“There were many challenges for us,” recalled Levandoski about the playoff run. “Most of the time, we never played an entire game. During the tournament, we drove down in a school bus, and stayed there for 11 days straight and went to school. The year before, we kept coming home after the games.

“We were a good fast-breaking team -- fundamentally sound,” she added. “Our parents were backers of the team. Barb taught us a lot of life-long goals that we took to heart. Grades were important. She made it tough. In practice, we used to scrimmage eight on five to make it tougher. For each game we won, she made us score that many lay-ups before we could go home.”

Following high school, many of the team members scattered across the country. Chapman landed at Stanford. Karen Levandoski stayed home and played ball at Northern Michigan University. Krueger also went to Northern, where her father, Gil, coached the foo tball team. She later transferred to New Mexico State. Hopkins attended UCLA, where she earned four basketball letters during the Ann Meyers era. Soon after, Crill departed the area for a job at Detroit Dominican before landing a college coaching posit ion in Kansas.

It was 20 years ago this fall that they won it all. This summer, the team members returned home to celebrate their accomplishments. Even the team's bus driver, Bill LaMora, stopped by.

“He used to drive us right to our houses after the games, to make sure we got home safely,” said Levandoski, who, along with her sister, is now a teacher in the Marquette district. “He and his wife attended our reunion. Bill brought along a wooden school bus that we had all signed. It was great.”

“A lot of the girls had to come a long way,” said Crill, now back in the area, selling real estate. “We were at Suzie Mick's house for a picnic, and then out for a nice dinner at one of the clubs. On Sunday, we were at the golf club for a scramble.”

They even slipped in some basketball, squaring off against the current version of the Redettes. It was a weekend of reminiscing for everyone.

“I think that trip was the biggest difference,” said Crill. “It gave them more experience playing the type of teams they would meet in the tournament. They could see they were talented enough. They had already played the best there was. They realized t hey could beat them again."

--Ron Pesch

Ron Pesch is the historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Story ideas and potential statistical records submissions are always welcome. Write to Pesch at 1447 Henry Street, Muskegon, MI 49441.