By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
PETOSKEY — Dennis Starkey was the face of Petoskey basketball for 32 years.
Now the Northmen have turned to a new, but familiar face to lead them into the next era on the hardwood after Starkey announced his retirement following the 2017-18 boys basketball season.
John Flynn, who suited up for Petoskey from 1996-98 and is among the school’s all-time greats, has taken over for his former coach after spending the last two seasons as a varsity assistant on Starkey’s staff.
“It’s kind of been surreal,” said Flynn. “I guess I never really thought about being Petoskey’s next coach just because when you think of Petoskey basketball you think of Dennis Starkey as the varsity coach. It wouldn’t exist without him. It never really crossed my mind that he would ever step down. He’s been there for so long. That’s all I’ve ever really known.”
Starkey felt like it was time to step down after last season, however. Not because the Northmen weren’t having success. In fact, last season’s 19-3 record was the 14th consecutive season that Petoskey had finished above .500. Starkey, who had already retired from teaching three years ago, was simply ready to enjoy other aspects of life that had been on the backburner during a 36-year coaching run during which he won 553 games — with 515 of those coming at Petoskey — and earned spots in both the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan and Michigan High School Coaches Association halls of fame. Starkey won 17 Districts and 14 conference championships while turning Petoskey into a model of consistent excellence on the basketball court.
Flynn was one of nine candidates who applied to replace Starkey. He was familiar with the program and seemed to be a natural fit, given the amount of time he had been a part of it. After going through the process with all the candidates, the school felt the same way.
“There were definitely some quality guys (who applied),” said Petoskey athletic director Dave Smith. “We were looking for someone who was going to be around for a while, and that was John.
“It’s nice to have one of Dennis’ former players. (John) certainly learned from one of the best.”
Starkey was pleased when Flynn was announced as his successor last spring and sees Flynn as having a bright future as a head coach.
“I thought it was a great choice,” said Starkey. “He’s a hard worker and he’s got a great personality. John’s always been a student of the game, and I think it’s been a real good fit. Nobody is going to outwork him, and that’s the No. 1 (trait), and he has good relationships with the kids. The combination of his work ethic and his ability to relate to the kids will make him special.”
Coaching basketball comes naturally to Flynn. His dad Joe was a longtime coach at Harbor Springs and had great success there. John Flynn started his high school career as a freshman at Harbor Springs but transferred to Petoskey as a sophomore and — along with backcourt mate Trevor Huffman — helped the Northmen win three straight Class B Regional titles, including getting to the MHSAA Semifinals twice. In 1997 Petoskey lost to Detroit Country Day, which went on to win its third straight Class B championship. In 1998 it was Marshall that ousted the Northmen.
“John was a very intense player — loved a challenge,” said Starkey. “Also really enjoyed the game. John just loves the game.”
That passion took Flynn all the way to Grand Valley State, where he became the all-time leading scorer with 2,220 points as well as the all-time leading scorer in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with 1,531 points. Now it’s shining through on the sidelines during games or with a whistle during practice.
“John understands how important basketball is to this community,” said Smith. “He has quite the drive and passion for the sport. That’s just something I don’t think many coaches can match. It’s not just necessarily about winning (to him), but certainly he holds our guys very accountable for doing things the right way. There’s no letdown with any of that. He just demands that they’re going to work hard and do their best.”
Flynn is a new voice on the bench, and he’s added a few wrinkles to Petoskey’s look, but the Northmen still have the basic tenets that were established under Starkey and remain the backbone of the program.
“We’re going to focus on the fundamentals, hold guys accountable, talk on defense, just be tough-nosed — the Petoskey brand,” said Flynn. “I got that from Coach Starkey, and that’s never going to change. We’re going to give 100 percent. We’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to leave it on the floor, and if we lose some, we lose some. If we win some, we win some, but you can go home at night and go to sleep saying, ‘Hey, we laid it all on the line.’ I know Coach Starkey, that was true to him for more than 30 years and that doesn’t change.
“There might be some different stuff as far as Xs and Os that we do, but he and I both adapt with the talent we’re given each particular year. I’m just trying to give these kids a platform to give them the best chance to succeed. This year that style is a little bit different than what we’ve played in the past, but there’s still some of that core values and beliefs from a program perspective that’s never going to change.”
The results on the floor have so far been consistent amid the transition, too. Flynn’s squad started the season by winning four of the first five games, including a 57-52 win on the road over previously-unbeaten Alpena in the Northmen’s Big North Conference opener.
“The guys I have this year — they’re such good kids, and they work so hard,” said Flynn. “That right there keeps me fired up and motivated to do my best as a coach, because they’re receptive. Now they’re starting to see my method to my madness as far as what I’m saying works. They’re starting to see the fruits of their labor.”
Starkey has purposely tried to keep his distance to give his former player all the space he needs, even scheduling a trip to Florida to coincide with the start of the regular season. The two have spoken a number of times, however, as Flynn continues to glean information from his former coach and mentor.
“We have great conversations,” said Flynn. “It’s great to bounce ideas off of him. I hope he enjoys it as much as I do because he still has that coach mentality that’s been interwoven into his fabric for the last 36 years. I’m glad we’ve got such a great relationship. I respect him and his knowledge so much.”
Flynn may not have specifically set out to become Petoskey’s basketball coach, but the timing of the vacancy, his love for the game and the opportunity to carry on the rich Petoskey basketball tradition made for a perfect match.
“I just felt like there was a need and I had to fill that need because I know I could try to do as good of a job as Coach Starkey and carry on his legacy,” said Flynn. “This is the baton. Now it’s my turn to keep this going. Kind of like, ‘Coach, I got this.’”
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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) Petoskey boys basketball first-year head coach John Flynn directs his players during a practice this season. (Middle) The Northmen celebrate one of many encouraging moments early this winter. (Photos courtesy of the Petoskey News-Review.)
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click by Christine McCallister.)