Coaching Couple Guide Rising Cardinals

By Dennis Chase
Special for

January 21, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

JOHANNESBURG – It's Thursday – game day in the Huff household.

Nothing unusual about that. Most winter days are game days for Heather and Troy Huff, the head varsity basketball coaches at Johannesburg-Lewiston High School.

"Monday is usually the only night we eat at home as a family," said Heather, who is in her 15th season as the girls coach.

This week's schedule is as hectic as ever – the boys hosted Bellaire on Tuesday, the girls entertained Onaway on Wednesday, the boys travel to Pellston tonight and the girls head to Mancelona on Friday.

On Saturday, the Huffs will be in Houghton Lake to watch their 12-year-old son Sheldon play.

Sunday? It's back to practice.

"We get a lot of basketball this time of year," said Troy, now in his fourth season as boys coach.

Winning basketball, too. Propelled by a strong senior class, the Cardinals are off to a combined 14-2 start – the boys are 6-1 and the girls 8-1.

The girls record is not a surprise. The Cardinals are averaging 16 wins a season under Heather Huff, who is 234-89 since she took over from her mentor, Rick Guild, who won 443 varsity games during his Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Fame career.

The boys, though, are reaching for new heights. Troy Huff inherited a struggling program when he took over in 2012. The Cardinals finished with 10 victories that first season, and then jumped to 16 wins a year ago.

"It's amazing how far the team has come in four years," Troy said. "We had five coaches in 10 years (previously). You can't build a program like that."

Coaching stability has been a key to success at Johannesburg-Lewiston. The football program, which has won 61 percent of its games since starting the sport in 1969, has had just three head coaches since 1983. Girls basketball has had two since 1975. Kevin Kennedy will be starting his 30th season in the spring with girls track & field, a program he's led to seven league and six Regional titles. Guild is gearing up for his 41st season as baseball coach for the Cardinals, who have won 15 Districts and three Regionals in that span.

"We've been able to keep that continuity (in those programs), and that's huge," athletic director and football coach Joe Smokevitch said. "Year after year after year, the kids know the expectations."

The Huffs set the bar high in basketball.

"Troy and I were raised to work hard and set high expectations for ourselves," said Heather, who teaches math and health at the middle school. "We (ask) that from the kids that we coach, too. We hold them to a high level of accountability. I think when you do that, you get out of them what you expect out of them."

Troy agrees.

"I don't accept that 'I can't do it' type attitude," he said. "You have to push yourself to that next level."

On the court, the results are apparent.

The girls, led by four-year veterans Madison Showerman and Kelsey Cherwinski, are in contention for another Ski Valley Conference crown. The 5-foot-11 Showerman is averaging 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 steals per game. She just went over the 1,000-career point mark. The 5-5 Cherwinski is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 steals and 4.4 assists. The Cardinals also are getting strong play from two other seniors, Kate Heidman and Sarah Korff.

As in the past, Johannesburg-Lewiston likes to pressure the ball on defense, creating scoring opportunities off turnovers. And when the Cardinals clear a defensive rebound off the glass, they like to get out in transition.

If the fast break is not there, the Cardinals can turn to an improved halfcourt offense, Heather Huff said, that features Showerman's developing skills inside.

Another four-year varsity veteran, Logan Huff – Heather and Troy's middle son – is a key cog on the boys team. The 5-11 point guard, who carries a 3.99 grade-point average, also is averaging 18 points a game and surpassed the career 1,000-point mark earlier in the season. Troy's nephew, Brandon Huff, is a 6-3 forward who averages better than 15 points per contest. Seniors Nathan Fox, Brent Carpenter and Ori Kierczynski add to the attack. The 6-7 Carpenter, who is averaging close to 10 points, suffered a bone bruise four games into the season, so Tyson Claeys, a 6-3 freshman, stepped up, and is averaging nearly a double-double.

Troy Huff said that balance is the strength of his team.

"We have (multiple) guys that can score," he said. "It's not unusual to have three to four guys in double figures."

The Cardinals are pursuing their first boys league title since 1981. But it just got more challenging. They suffered their first loss Tuesday to Bellaire. The girls lost to Bellaire last week.

“That will be a great motivator for us,” Heather said.

Now, it will be for the boys, too.

For the Huffs, coaching at Johannesburg-Lewiston completes a circle. It’s where they went to school, where their sports journeys began.

Heather was a standout player under Guild, scoring 1,216 points during her career. She played at Alma College for a couple seasons before turning to coaching, starting at the middle school level in Alma, Breckenridge and Gaylord before returning home. She spent six years as an assistant and junior varsity coach before succeeding Guild. Her 2009 team reached the Class D MHSAA Semifinals.

Troy was a captain on the football and baseball teams in high school, but did not play basketball.

"That's one of my regrets," he said.

Troy Huff went on to spend 25 years in law enforcement, retiring from the Gaylord Police Department in 2013.

With three sons active in sports, he took on a second job during those years, coaching youth sports.

“It was in my blood,” he said.

Huff was still working in the police department when he accepted the boys varsity basketball job. Not long after, he agreed to be an assistant to Guild in baseball.

Smokevitch said Huff's personality is what stood out when he took over the basketball program.

"He's a take-charge guy," said Smokevitch. "He has that no non-sense (attitude) about him, similar to the way I coach (football)."

Huff also knew the kids. He coached most of them in youth sports.

Huff has had the joy of coaching two sons on varsity – Coalton and Logan. Sheldon, the team manager, is coming up through the ranks.

The Huffs agree the best part of their jobs is simply working with their players and “helping them be the best they can be.”

"Just watching each player develop, watching them work together as a team, and having some influence on that, is rewarding," said Heather.

That's not lost on Smokevitch. He’s seen Heather teach her craft on the court for all 15 years as head coach.

"She's constantly working with the kids, constantly teaching," he said. "I read a quote from John Wooden the other day. He said, 'It's not coaching, it's teaching.' That's what Heather does."

Smokevitch said this is a special time at the school. Teams are doing well across the board.

"We have great kids," he said.

Not just in talent, but character, he added.

Take Logan Huff, Brandon Huff and Fox, for example. They were three-year starters for Smokevitch n football. The Cardinals finished 9-2 in the fall, losing by six and eight points to St. Ignace, an eventual Division 8 semifinalist.

Brandon was the pass-run threat at quarterback, Logan was a 1,000-yard rusher and became the school's all-time leading tackler, while Fox was an all-state punter.

They visited Finlandia University in Hancock late last week and then returned home in time to attend a birthday party for Smokevitch's 7-year-old son, Joey.

"He invited those three to come to his bowling party," said Smokevitch. "They all showed up, bowled, brought presents, had pizza and cake, and hung out with a bunch of 7-year-olds. That shows you what kind of kids they are, the upbringings they've had.

"It's that small-town school atmosphere. Our school is one building, K through 12. The younger kids see the (high school) kids all the time. My son idolizes those kids, and they accept him right back."

In another month or so, those three boys, along with their teammates, would like to be accepting a league championship basketball trophy. The girls would like to be celebrating a title, too.

But there are still a lot of game days ahead. Just ask the Huffs.

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: Heather Huff, left, and husband Troy coach the girls and boys varsity basketball teams, respectively, at Johannesburg-Lewiston. (Photos courtesy of Brandon Folsom/Gaylord Herald Times.)

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)