This past Friday night felt like a home game for Al DeMott.
Family, friends and former players were packed into the stands to watch him set the MHSAA record for career wins by a girls basketball coach.
There was a postgame celebration on the court, and a congratulatory message displayed on the video board.
Of course, DeMott and the Wolves hadn’t just won a game in their home gym – they had done it at Unionville-Sebewaing.
But anywhere in the Thumb can feel like home.
“USA, they really did a lot,” DeMott said. “They put a thing up on the board, their coach came out after the game and said all kinds of nice things. USA was a very generous host. They went above and beyond.
“That’s the way it is in Thumb basketball; we all look after each other and support each other. In all sports, really. When one team goes on a run, the whole Thumb gets on the bandwagon.”
Sandusky’s win was the 798th of DeMott’s career, putting him ahead of retired Detroit Country Day coach Frank Orlando on the all-time list.
It’s a record more than 40 years in the making, as DeMott took over the program in 1979. In that time, Sandusky has won 23 league titles, 27 District titles, seven Regional titles and earned an MHSAA Finals runner-up finish (1999). The program hasn’t had a losing season since 1982.
“I’ve been doing it a long time,” DeMott said. “Our program has had a lot of success. We’ve had a pretty good run going for a lot of years. The numbers don’t really mean that much to me. It’s nice for our program that it’s been successful as it has. That it’s been steady for a long time. There are a lot of good people that have done a good job.”
DeMott’s career record stands at 799-206, as the Wolves won another game Tuesday night to push their season record to 9-2.
Before he’s done, the record will no doubt be well above 800. How far above depends on how long DeMott sticks around. Right now, there’s no immediate plan to stop.
“Every year, when you get done with the year and your season ends, you’re tired,” DeMott said. “But I’m still having a lot of fun doing it. Another thing, God’s blessed me with good health. I’ve been fortunate to keep going strong with this. I’ve been working on trying to get someone to take it over – I’ve got a granddaughter in eighth grade, and I would like to sit and watch her.”
One thing that keeps DeMott going is the support he gets from those around him in the program.
He’s had the opportunity to coach with his three daughters, Desiree, Allison and Marissa, who also played for him. His longtime assistant coach and childhood friend, Ray Lee, has been on the staff since 1982. DeMott said that during his time at Sandusky, he’s had only six or seven JV coaches.
“I have such a good support system,” DeMott said. “I have loyal assistant coaches.”
The community, both in Sandusky and throughout the Thumb, also has shown DeMott tremendous support, even as he was struggling to get the program off the ground in the early years.
“With the start I had here, if somebody got off to the start I did, they’d be gone, probably,” DeMott said. “It’s been phenomenal. I can’t believe all the texts and emails and calls I’ve got. People have gone above and beyond. There’s been a lot of support. We’ve always got really good support.”
And, of course, nothing can beat the support that DeMott gets at home, as his wife Tammy has been there since the beginning.
“My wife has been a saint,” DeMott said. “When I first started doing this coaching, she was a little iffy about it. When I first started, I was working at the bank and I only had two weeks vacation. We used to use one of the weeks of vacation to go to team camp. She stays up and does stats with me. She’s my biggest supporter I’ve ever had.”
All that support has allowed DeMott to build a consistent winner at a public school with an enrollment just over 300 students.
He started a youth program fairly early in his time at Sandusky, and it’s still going strong. He said there were 40 third and fourth graders in the gym this past Saturday starting their latest season.
As kids grow up in the program, they dream of one day playing for the varsity team and DeMott.
“This achievement couldn’t have been accomplished by a more humble and deserving person,” said Haley Nelson, a 2018 Sandusky grad who played for DeMott before playing at Saginaw Valley State. “In Sandusky, playing under Coach DeMott is something you look forward to as soon as you start playing basketball in elementary school. He’s built a standard as to what Sandusky girls basketball is, and it made you want to work hard to live up to it. The program he’s built is a testament to his hard work and dedication year-round. I think it would be tough to find another high school coach as committed to their program as Al is. He sees each of his players as people far beyond what they can contribute on the court, and for that reason, the impact he has on his players extends far beyond basketball.”
Nelson is one of many Sandusky players who have gone onto play at the next level. Many have stayed connected to the sport through coaching, as well. But in general, DeMott touts the academic success of his program, and the pride he has in the citizens his former players have grown to be.
“A lot of our former players, they’ve all done a lot of really good things,” DeMott said. “I couldn’t be prouder. There were quite a few there (at USA). It meant a lot to see them.”
One former player-turned-coach is Wayne State women’s basketball coach Carrie Lohr, who has set records of her own. She’s in her 12th season at Wayne State, and has won nearly 200 games. She became the program’s all-time winningest coach in 2019.
She counts DeMott as one of her biggest influences.
"Al is truly one of the best coaches in the state of Michigan," Lohr said. "I believe he could coach any team or sport to its highest potential. Al has an unwavering dedication and passion for the game of basketball and teaching young people. He is selfless, positive, consistent, knowledgeable and truly cares about the players he leads.
“Playing for Coach Al DeMott is still some of my best basketball memories ever. He has truly made a positive impact on my life as he has done for so many who have worn the Sandusky jersey. I wouldn't be where I am today without his mentorship. I am forever grateful to him and his support of me long after I left the court."
With the record behind him, DeMott now hopes the focus can return to this year’s team, which is 9-2 with its losses coming by a combined five points.
It’s clear he’s excited about this group, as the energy in his voice ratcheted up when asked about his players.
“I’ve got an awesome group to coach,” DeMott said. “They’re really good, smart, hard workers. They want to be successful, and they really like to play together. They love playing together. They’re a special group.”
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) Sandusky girls basketball coach Al DeMott stands alongside his current team after they helped him break the MHSAA record for girls basketball victories Friday at Unionville-Sebewaing. (Middle) The USA scoreboard celebrated DeMott’s accomplishment. (Below) Players line up to congratulate DeMott on his milestone win. (Photos courtesy of Sandusky High School.)
STAMBAUGH — Danica Shamion has enjoyed plenty of success in track & field throughout her high school athletic career.
The West Iron County senior is also quite successful in basketball.
Shamion joined the 1,000-point club here Jan. 23 while scoring 34 in a 63-60 loss to Norway.
“That really felt good,” she said after last week’s 93-41 win over Bessemer on Senior Night. “I’m glad I was able to do that at home. Although, it would have been even better had we won that game.”
The Wykons scored five in double digits against the Speedgirls, led by senior Siena Stine with 20 points. Junior center Sidney Storti added 17 points, and Shamion finished with 16 points and 17 assists.
“Sidney is a real asset to our team,” Shamion said. “I can see the floor pretty well, and the other girls are doing a pretty good job getting open. This was our last home game. It definitely meant something to us.”
Shamion, an All-Upper Peninsula Division 1-3 first-team selection a year ago, twisted her ankle in a season-opening 47-40 triumph over Iron Mountain and missed the next three games.
West Iron was 1-3 going into the holiday break before getting back on track with a 42-28 victory over Kingsford on Jan. 2. That enabled the Wykons to improve to 4-3 before dropping six of their next seven games.
West Iron, which was 5-9 after dropping a 73-55 decision at Negaunee, had won four in a row prior to Thursday’s 46-44 loss at Calumet. But the Wykons bounced back with a 51-49 win over Ishpeming Westwood on Tuesday to get back to .500 at 10-10.
“We were trying to forge our identity and weren’t hitting our shots (earlier in the season),” Shamion said. “Although, we’ve been playing better defense lately. We’re pretty good one-on-one and usually play man-to-man. We try to run the floor and score in transition.
“Negaunee is probably the best team we’ve seen this year, although Ishpeming and Houghton are also very good and Calumet and Westwood are tough,” she added.
In track & field, Shamion set U.P. Division 2 Finals record in the 200-meter dash (26.34 seconds) and 400 (57.18) last season. She also won the 100 (12.79) and placed second in high jump at 4 feet, 10 inches. She is a three-time Finals champion in all three sprint races.
Shamion also made the all-U.P. Volleyball Dream Team in the fall.
She will continue on the track at Central Michigan University after she graduates from West Iron this spring.
“I didn’t know much about their program, but I was interested in what they had to offer,” she said. “The girls on the team are nice, which is part of the reason why I chose Central. It’s a relief to have that decided.”
John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
PHOTOS (Top) West Iron’s Danica Shamion (24) blocks a shot during her team’s game at Ishpeming on Jan. 15. (Middle) Shamion maintains possession of the ball. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)