Hillman Becomes Basketball Town, Too

January 6, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

HILLMAN – Eric Muszynski still remembers that day in 2005 when, as the newly appointed boys basketball coach at Hillman, he made a promise to the man who hired him, administrator Jack Richards.

As they gazed at the banners in the school gymnasium – highlighted by the school’s three MHSAA Class D championships in baseball – Muszynski vowed to add some basketball banners to the collection.

“He (Richards) chuckled,” Muszynski recalled. “He said, ‘Try to get to .500 first.’”

Historically, Hillman’s been a baseball town. The Tigers played for MHSAA championships four times in six years during the 1990s.

“Basketball was something you did to stay in shape for baseball,” said Richards, who went on to serve as superintendent for five years. “Eric’s turned that around.”

Since 2009, Hillman has won four North Star Conference basketball championships, five Districts and one Regional. The Tigers stretched their regular-season win streak to 44 after Thursday night’s 68-38 victory over Mio. Their last regular-season loss was to Cedarville in the 2014-15 opener.

Quite a turnaround for a program that had won only one league title prior to Muszynski’s arrival.

“And that wasn’t an outright title,” senior guard Gunnar Libby said.

Libby, a first-team Associated Press all-state pick last season, is the catalyst for this 5-0 Tigers team. A four-year varsity veteran, Libby has played a vital role in the program’s growth. Hillman won its first outright league title when he was a freshman, captured its first Regional crown when he was a sophomore, and posted its first unbeaten regular season when he was a junior.

“I’ve been really lucky to play on some good teams,” he said.

The turnaround did not happen overnight. The Tigers were 10-32 in Muszynski’s first two years.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Will we ever get over that hump?’” Muszynski wondered.

His boss stood by him.

“I had some people come to my office, saying he wasn’t the guy for the job,” Richards said. “I told them, ‘Settle down. This guy will bring us championships.’ Eric heard me, and he took it to heart. He worked hard to prove me right.”

In his third season, Muszynski led Hillman to an 11-10 mark. From there, the program took off.

“It’s been truly amazing,” the former Alpena High School standout said. “As a coach, you envision and hope that your program can do big things. We’ve been in that conversation – of trying to get down to East Lansing (for the Final Four) – since 2013 when we almost upset Cedarville (a double overtime loss) in the Regional Final.”

Hillman, sparked by Mason VanPamel and Ty Jones, reached the Quarterfinals in 2015 before losing to eventual champion Powers North Central.

It looked like the Tigers might be in for a rebuild last season, losing eight seniors and four starters to graduation. Instead, Hillman won its first 22 games before losing to Onaway 58-57 in the District Final.

“We were counted out from the very beginning,” Libby said. “We proved everybody wrong.”

Still, the setback to Onaway – a team Hillman had knocked out of the Districts the previous three years – left a bitter taste. Onaway reached the Quarterfinals, but that loss motivates the Tigers.

When his team first gathered for practice this season, Muszynski stressed the importance of “protecting” its league title as well as recapturing the District championship. Hillman had won three Districts in a row before its sudden exit last March.

“That District (trophy) should be in Hillman,” Libby said.

That statement reflects how far this program has evolved. It’s a program that’s now won 46 consecutive league games and 36 consecutive home games.

Those streaks continue to grow, although Libby admitted he’s lost count.

“You just go out there and do what you’ve got to do,” he said.

The 5-foot-9 Libby is the floor general and lone senior in the starting lineup. He averages 25 points and six assists per game. He surpassed 1,000 career points in the season opener when he dropped 30 on Cedarville.

“He’s lightning quick,” Muszynski said. “He’s a tough kid; a hard-nosed, old school style point guard.”

Libby’s backcourt mate, 5-10 junior Brandon Banks, averages nearly 15 a game.

“That’s been our recipe for success since 2009,” Muszynski said. “We usually feature two dynamic scorers.”

Andrew Funk, a 6-foot junior, is also averaging in double figures. He scored 19 in Tuesday’s win, hitting five of Hillman’s 13 3-pointers.

The Tigers compensate for lack of size with speed, a trapping defense and a dangerous perimeter game. Kory Henigan, a 6-4 sophomore, and Billy Kolcan, a 6-1 junior, are the tallest starters. Henigan averages eight points and seven rebounds while the athletic Kolcan, an MHSAA Finals qualifier in track and an honorable mention all-state player in football, spearheads the press.

“He (Kolcan) plays up front on our press,” Muszynski said. “He makes us go. He’s one of the best athletes to come through our school in a long time.”

Kolcan, Banks and Funk were on varsity as sophomores last season.

“On paper, it appears we’re young,” Muszynski said. “But we’re battle-tested.”

And, according to Libby, cohesive, too.

“We work well together,” Libby said. “We’re unselfish – and we scrap.”

Now, the Tigers would like to start playing more basketball. Hillman played just three games in December after two contests were postponed due to weather.

“It’s hard to get any kind of rhythm and consistency when you play two games, then you’re off two weeks, you play one game, then you’re off another two weeks,” Libby said.

As for Muszynski, this is his 12th season at Hillman. He was hired as a physical education/health/social studies teacher and girls basketball coach. When the boys job opened soon afterward, he added that to his responsibilities. He coached both teams for two years before the MHSAA switched girls basketball season to the winter. Even though the girls were 30-12 in those two seasons under his leadership, he felt coaching boys basketball was his calling.

“I liked the challenge,” he said. “With the girls, I walked into a good program. With the boys, I wanted to see if I could build a program.”

With a win over Rudyard just before the holiday break, the 37-year-old Muszynski notched his 200th career win at Hillman (30 with the girls, 170 with the boys).

“He’s been a real blessing for us,” Libby said. “He’s a great coach. He holds us all accountable. He’s thorough, and he can motivate. He knows his stuff.”

“I’m truly blessed,” Muszynski added. “That’s (200 wins) a credit to my players, past and present.”

Muszynski echoed those same sentiments after he won the Associated Press Class D Coach of the Year honor last season.

“One of the proudest moments in my coaching career,” he admitted. “Not only was it a great reward, but it was a reflection of our basketball program here.”

Richards, meanwhile, takes satisfaction in the basketball program’s accomplishments. Now retired, he still follows the Tigers – and Muszynski.

What did he see in Muszynski when he hired him in 2005?

“He has a drive,” Richards said. “He knows what it takes and the work that’s involved. A lot of people just want to work during the season, and when it’s over they’re done. That’s not Eric. He’s a worker, a planner. You could see his desire.”

Richards also feared, once the boys started winning, that Muszynski might leave for a bigger school. He even mentioned that to Muszynski.

“Eric said, ‘You gave me the opportunity to be a head coach and I want to do right by you,’” Richards recalled. “I said, ‘I understand that. But let me give you a piece of advice: it’s easier to build a dynasty in a small town than in a large town.’ I think he’s done a pretty good job with that.”

Muszynski looked north to Cedarville for inspiration. Coach Dave Duncan developed that program into a state contender. The Trojans won an MHSAA title in 2007 and nearly another two years later.

“I thought if a small Class D school in the Upper Peninsula can do that, why can’t we?” Muszynski reasoned.

One of Muszynski’s first priorities was to start applying his philosophies in the youth program so by the time those players reached the varsity they would know the defensive schemes and offensive sets.

“They’ve seen success so they know the formula works,” Muszynski said. “If you have some success, and start to win championships, everyone starts to buy in.”

As for baseball? Practice is still several weeks away.

“When I first got there,” Richards recalled, “the kids, after basketball practice, would put their gloves on and throw the baseball around. They even had a batting cage in the old gym. Now, you don’t see a baseball glove in the gym during the winter.”

Now you see basketball banners.

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 dennischase@charter.net 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) Gunnar Libby, who has scored more than 1,000 points during his Hillman career, cuts through a group of defenders. (Middle) Hillman coach Eric Muszynski addresses his team. (Photos courtesy of The Alpena News.)

Breslin Bound: 2022-23 Boys Quarterfinal Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

March 21, 2023

It finally feels like spring, at least here in East Lansing. And tonight, 32 teams will attempt to build into their spring breaks a trip to Breslin Center.


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Below is a glance at all 16 of tonight’s Quarterfinals across four divisions, with all games tipping off at 7 p.m. unless noted. Winners advance to Thursday and Friday’s Semifinals, and we’ll detail the teams more then as we preview those concluding rounds of this year’s tournament.

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Division 1

Ann Arbor Huron (23-2) vs. Detroit Cass Tech (25-1) at University of Detroit Mercy, 5:30 p.m.

After an early postseason exit last season, 2021 Division 1 runner-up Huron has put together another deep playoff run. Sophomore guard Macari Moore leads three players averaging double-digit scoring at 17 points per game. After winning its first Regional title last season since 1998, Cass Tech is back at the Quarterfinals for a second straight March. Darius Acuff is another super sophomore, also leading three double-digit scorers at 21.6 ppg to go with 5.8 assists per contest.

Grand Blanc (24-2) vs. Rochester Adams (17-8) at Lake Orion

Last season’s runner-up is two wins away from playing for another title, but this time the Bobcats are led by first-year coach Tory Jackson. Seniors Tae Boyd (15.4 ppg) and RJ Taylor (14.3) are a strong 1-2 punch. Adams is coming off its first Regional title in this sport, with junior 6-foot-7 football standout Brady Prieskorn among top contributors for a Highlanders hoops team that has won seven of its last nine games.

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (14-10) vs. Warren De La Salle (17-8) at University of Detroit Mercy

These Detroit Catholic League Central rivals will meet for the third time, with St. Mary’s winning the first matchup by 17 on Jan. 10 and the reigning Division 1 champion Pilots taking the rematch by 12 on Jan. 31. Sophomore Trey McKenney is a force at 25.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game for the Eaglets, while Phoenix Glassnor is another sophomore standout leading De La Salle at 18.4 ppg.

Muskegon (24-2) vs. East Lansing (16-9) at Caledonia

East Lansing has won six straight and 12 of its last 14 games, with three of those wins over opponents responsible for four of their losses this winter. Only one starter is a senior, and sophomore Cameron Hutson leads the way at 19.3 ppg. Muskegon is in the midst of a ninth 20-win season over the last decade and earned its first Regional title since 2015. Senior Jordan Briggs (18.7 ppg) has qualified for the MHSAA single-season record list with 84 3-pointers, connecting on nearly 40 percent of his tries from beyond the arc.

Division 2

Cadillac (22-4) vs. Saginaw (20-6) at Alma

The Trojans are seeking their first Semifinal appearance since 2013 and have lost only to Division 1 opponents this season, with guard Javarie Holliday leading a mostly senior-powered lineup at 15.8 ppg. Cadillac also won its Regional last season and is seeking to return to the Semifinals for the first time since 2015, with 6-6 junior Charlie Howell the leading scorer (15.3 ppg) and rebounder (7.4 rpg).

Ferndale (18-8) vs. Goodrich (22-4) at Lake Orion, 5:30 p.m.

The Eagles are working to reach Breslin and the Semifinals for a third-straight season and have won 13 of their last 14 games while navigating a power-packed schedule again this winter. Senior Chris Williams leads a balanced lineup at 13.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Goodrich is a combined 93-20 over the last five seasons and playing to make the Semifinals for the first time with senior Jack Locey (18.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.0 spg, 45 3-pointers) among those filling the stat sheet.

Hudsonville Unity Christian (18-9) vs. Grand Rapids South Christian (23-3) at Calvin University

These rivals will be filling Calvin for a rematch after South Christian won the regular-season meeting 58-50 on Dec. 16. The bad news for the Sailors is they lost leading scorer Carson Vis (17.7 ppg) to injury in the Regional Final, but senior Jacob DeHaan (13 ppg) leads three others averaging at least 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Unity has won 11 of its last 12 games, with two-point upsets of Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Grand Rapids Christian along the way. Juniors Trayton Fisher and Colin Neiuwenhuis both average about 11.5 points per game and have combined for 97 3-pointers.

Chelsea (21-5) vs. Romulus Summit Academy (24-2) at Milan

These are two more teams looking to reach the Semifinals for the first time, Summit having played in a Quarterfinal as recently as 2021 and Chelsea’s last trip to the season’s final week in 2000. Juniors Jacob Stephens (22.7 ppg) and Joseph Cabana (22.2) set a strong pace for the Bulldogs. The Dragons have doubled up all four of their postseason opponents so far and done the same in 16 wins total this winter.

Tri-unity Christian’s Roy Fogg pulls in a loose ball during his team’s Regional championship victory over Lansing Christian.

Division 3

Detroit Loyola (25-1) vs. Flint Beecher (21-4) at Waterford Mott

A 67-58 loss to Division 1 Flint Carman-Ainsworth on Jan. 29 remains the only defeat on Loyola’s list this winter. All five starters are seniors, with Dashawn Martin (15.1 ppg) leading three averaging double-figure scoring. Beecher’s losses were to Division 1 and 2 opponents, including three playing tonight. Robert Lee leads a senior-dominated lineup at 24.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game as the Bucs attempt to make the Semifinals for a third-straight season.

Laingsburg (25-0) vs. Ecorse (19-4) at Ypsilanti Lincoln

The Wolfpack’s closest game this season was seven points, its Regional Semifinal win against Jonesville, as it attempts to reach Breslin for the first time since 2013. Junior Zander Woodruff is averaging more than a point per minute of playing time, leading at 24.4 ppg. Ecorse is seeking a return trip to the Semifinals and has won 17 of its last 18 games. Senior guard Malik Olafioye also is putting the finishing touches on a high-scoring career.

St. Ignace (22-4) vs. Traverse City St. Francis (22-4) at Gaylord

St. Ignace is playing in its first Quarterfinal since 2001, seeking to reach the Semifinals for the first time since 1983. Junior Jonny Ingalls (22.4 ppg) leads three Saints averaging at least 13, plus he’s dishing 5.4 assists per game. St. Francis has won 11 of its last 12 games with that lone loss to Cadillac (see above) in overtime in the regular-season finale. Senior Wyatt Nausadis has paced the scoring at 20.1 ppg after quarterbacking the football team to a Division 7 runner-up finish in the fall.

Pewamo-Westphalia (19-6) vs. Niles Brandywine (24-2) at Portage Central

Brandywine has reached the final week for the first time with its first Regional title, and its only losses this season remain against Division 2 Benton Harbor. Junior Jaremiah Palmer leads a lineup with four players averaging at least 9.7 ppg at 12.9 per game. P-W is making its second-straight Quarterfinal appearance after edging North Muskegon by three and then Grandville Calvin Christian by two last week. Senior Jamison Eklund is averaging 22.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

Division 4

Painesdale Jeffers (25-1) vs. Munising (24-1) at Negaunee

The Upper Peninsula is guaranteed to send a one-loss team downstate to the Division 4 Semifinals, and for both programs it would be a first-time trip. Jeffers is playing its first Quarterfinal, and Munising its first since 1954. Junior Levi Frahm leads four Jets scoring in double digits at 20.5 ppg, while senior Kane Nebel is surrounded by a similar balanced attack and leads four double-digit scorers at 15.8 ppg.

Taylor Trillium Academy (21-3) vs. Marine City Cardinal Mooney (15-11) at West Bloomfield

Trillium is another first-time Regional champion, taking this step after falling just a four-point loss shy of reaching the Quarterfinals a year ago. Senior DaMaryon Fishburn is averaging 22.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game for the Wildcats, and junior Keymarryon Fishburn adds 15.3 ppg. Cardinal Mooney has won seven of its last nine games to reach the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2016 and after falling in Regional Finals the last two seasons – avenging the 2022 loss to Genesee Christian to advance. Senior Trent Rice leads three double-digit scorers at 12.9 ppg.

Frankfort (17-8) vs. Hillman (22-4) at Gaylord, 5 p.m.

Frankfort is another team on a nice streak with eight wins over its last nine games including 50-44 over 2022 semifinalist Lake Leelanau St. Mary in last week’s Regional Final. Senior Emmerson Farmer and sophomore Carter Kerby supply the backcourt with between 10-11 ppg apiece. This will be Hillman’s fourth Quarterfinal over the last nine seasons as the Tigers seek their first Semifinal trip. Trenton Taratuta is a big-time scorer averaging 27.4 ppg with 60 3-pointers but also 9.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 5.2 steals per game.

Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (20-6) vs. Kalamazoo Phoenix (17-2) at Richland Gull Lake

This is a familiar spot for Tri-unity Christian, the reigning Division 4 champion. All five starters average between 6-13 ppg and four have high games of at least 20 points this season; senior Roy Fogg tops both lists at 13 ppg and 25, respectively. This is new territory for Phoenix, which won one game just two seasons ago but has won 10 in a row heading into this week. Senior Cameron Lewis-Atkins (19.9 ppg) leads five players averaging 11 or more points per game. Phoenix avenged one of its losses, to Eau Claire, in the Regional Semifinal.

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PHOTOS (Top) A fan holds up a sign supporting Painesdale Jeffers between the third and fourth quarters of last week’s Regional Final win over Stephenson. (Middle) Tri-unity Christian’s Roy Fogg pulls in a loose ball during his team’s Regional championship victory over Lansing Christian. (Top photo by Cara Kamps; middle photo by High School Sports Scene.)