Donny Yeager and his Saginaw Nouvel Catholic Central boys basketball teammates certainly weren’t happy with their 0-3 start to this season, even if they weren’t at all worried about what it meant for their future.
But now, with the Panthers in the midst of a nine-game win streak, they’re even able to see the good in those early defeats.
“We knew coming into the season that the first three games were going to be really tough games, especially at the beginning of the season,” Yeager said of the opening stretch against Essexville Garber, Pewamo-Westphalia and Cass City. “So we knew there was nothing to worry about, and that we had the whole season ahead of us. We knew practices were going to get us ready for the next one. I definitely think we learned a lot about our group. We learned about the determination and perseverance that our guys bring to the table.”
That determination and perseverance have the Panthers back on track in what was expected to be a special season – and in many ways already has been – following a Regional Final berth a year ago.
Not only is Nouvel 9-3 ahead of its game Friday night against St. Louis, but MJ Yeager, Donny’s twin brother, set the school’s career scoring record earlier this month. Donny Yeager, meanwhile, is less than 30 points away from joining his brother in the school’s 1,000-point club.
“We have a lot of experience back,” said Nouvel coach Mike Kessler, who is in his ninth season in charge of the program. “We try not to look ahead, and we’re trying to take it one step at a time. And I think we had to have a lot of conversations with our guys about just relaxing. We know expectations might be high, but let’s do what we’ve done for years. We have a really hard-working group this year, and they needed to just trust themselves.”
A lot of those expectations came from the return of the Yeager twins, as both MJ – a four-year starter – and Donny – a three-year starter – are in their fourth year on the varsity. Classmate Preston Otter is also in his third year as a starter.
The Yeagers are both 5-foot-10 guards who can handle the ball and shoot from distance, while Otter is a 6-4 forward that Kessler called “a crazy good athlete.”
“Their work ethic is second to none; it really is,” Kessler said. “They’re everything you want from seniors. They exemplify what we want our program and our school to be about.”
In total, there are seven seniors on the roster, including also Anthony Carrasquillo, Tristen Elizalde, Matthew Hartwell and Brandon Murphy.
Being that senior-laden helped the team through that early bump in the road, Kessler said.
Having that experience also doesn’t hurt when it comes to adjusting to whatever style of play a game may take on. Behind its Big 3, Nouvel can certainly score, averaging 65.3 points per game on the season and 70 ppg during their win streak.
But Nouvel also can fall back on its defense those nights when shots aren’t going down, which the Panthers feel will be key to a potential postseason run in Division 4.
Kessler said a pair of wins during the streak – 69-60 against Imlay City on Dec. 29 and 73-31 against Standish-Sterling on Jan. 16 – showed his team’s versatility.
“Standish has been good in our conference for the last four to five years,” Kessler said. “We out-rebounded them and held them to only 31 points. I thought we were a gritty, tough team that night. The Imlay City game, we won with our skill. We were tough, too, but we spread them out and we hit 3s. We were able to guard their 6-7 wing with Tristen Elizalde – he’s 5-11. He’s tough as nails. He can guard any position on the floor.”
As it’s all coming together for the Panthers as a team, the individual milestones also are being reached.
MJ Yeager set the school scoring record in that game against Standish, passing the previous mark of 1,302 set by Nouvel legend Preston Murphy during the early 1990s. Murphy is currently on Nate Oats’ coaching staff at Alabama and played collegiately at Rhode Island.
“I actually know (Murphy),” Yeager said. “He came over to my house and I played basketball with his kid.
“(The record) was a great accomplishment and a great feeling. I’ve always been a competitor, so achieving stuff like that, it’s a good feeling.”
The record began to come into focus for Yeager when he crossed the 1,000-point threshold during his junior season.
One thing that’s stuck out to him in hitting both marks is the reaction of Donny. He said he can’t wait to experience something similar when Donny crosses 1,000 points, maybe as soon as Friday.
“I feel like that’s going to help both of us realize the hours we put in together every single day have paid off,” MJ Yeager said. “I heard him talking about how great of a brother it made him feel like, and I’m hoping I can feel that when he achieves it.”
Donny echoed that sentiment.
“Honestly, to see him achieve 1,000 last year and the school record this year, it was really rewarding for me, as well,” he said. “We’ve grown up together, and I want to see him do good in everything he does. It’s a blessing to be able to do this with him.”
When it comes to his own potential milestone, Donny said it would mean a lot to share that honor with his brother.
But he was quick to point out the credit goes beyond the Yeager household.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without my supporting cast,” he said. “None of it would be possible without them. It’s really exciting. It shows what hard work and dedication can get you. And it’s good for all the young kids coming up to see that.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Nouvel Catholic Central senior guard MJ Yeager drives past a defender during a game against Cass City at the O'Neal Classic Tournament on Dec. 2 at Saginaw Valley State University. (Middle) Twin brother Donny Yeager drives past an Essexville Garber defender during his team’s Nov. 28 opener. (Below) Panthers senior Matthew Hartwell drives into the paint against Michigan Lutheran Seminary on Friday. (Photos by Michael Kolleth Photography.)