By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Just about every team that reaches an MHSAA championship game and leaves with a runner-up trophy makes plans, rather immediately, to return the following season and finish the title run.
Easier said than done, obviously. But Saginaw Nouvel gave itself no other option.
After falling by just five points in last season’s Class C Final to Manchester, the Panthers will get another chance Saturday to finish with a win for the first time since 2008.
Nouvel defeated Gobles in Thursday’s first Semifinal at the Breslin Center, 47-35, to earn an opportunity to face St. Ignace for the championship at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“It was hard. We almost expected it of ourselves. It was implied,” said Nouvel senior center Rachel McInerney of making another Breslin run. “We came into every game knowing we were going to win, and not leaving until we had won.”
The Panthers have made good on that aspiration more times than not this season, moving to 21-4 Thursday after chipping away quarter by quarter to finish ahead by a comfortable margin and hand Gobles (26-1) its lone loss.
Nouvel’s four-point advantage during the fourth quarter was its largest of any period. Neither team set Breslin aflame from an offensive standpoint – Nouvel shot only 25 percent from the floor and Gobles just 29.
But the Panthers managed a 48-37 rebounding edge, and with three seniors, maybe a slight edge in comfort with the big stage as Gobles was making its first trip to the Semifinals in program history.
First-half performance hasn’t been a strength this season – but Nouvel gutted out a 21-15 halftime lead and never trailed over the final 27 minutes of the game.
Sophomore guard Laurel Jacqmain led the Panthers with 20 points, and three teammates scored at least seven. But McInerney – who averages nearly 12 per game – had just three points although she did grab a team-high eight rebounds.
“Our team depth is so incredible. When Rachel isn’t scoring, we have other people who can step up,” Nouvel first-year coach Mary Jo Skiendziel said. “I’m so proud of how they play and come together, and pick her up until hopefully she can start scoring again.”
Gobles senior Michaela DeKilder just about hit her averages with 15 points and eight rebounds to finish a career that included leading her team to a combined 46-4 record over the last two seasons.
Coach John Curtis mentioned after that this was the group the Gobles community expected to make the school's first trip to the Semifinals, and the Tigers came through after also winning their second Regional title ever a week ago.
“Going through the other teams I’ve been on, this was completely different,” DeKilder said. “Yeah, we all liked each other (before), but this team all loved each other, and that was completely different. It wasn’t just for yourself, it was for everyone on the team.
“Making it to Breslin was the biggest accomplishment we’ve ever made. For me, when I walked into the gym, it hit me hard.”
She’s one of only two seniors graduating from a team that also had seven sophomores.
“We told the girls, our big thing is we want to be a regular here,” Curtis said. “We see St. Ignace here, see Nouvel, and I told (DeKilder) in the lockerroom they laid the foundation.
“We return nine girls next year, and hopefully next year we’ll be in a situation that’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re here.” We might play a little bit better, and we might just handle this situation a little bit better.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Saginaw Nouvel's Laurel Jacqmain (44) tries to get around a Gobles defender Thursday. (Middle) Nouvel's Lindsay Stroebel blocks the way for Gobles' Sharyena Hunt.
HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Jacqmain drives the lane for two of her game-high 20 points for Saginaw Nouvel in its 47-35 Class C Semifinal win over Gobles. (2) Michaela DeKilder led Gobles with 15 points. Here she gets two first-quarter points on a nice feed from Haley Rock.
It was known as “The Barn.” And it was home to the 1972 Class D boys basketball champion, the 1973 Class D girls basketball champion and the 1982 Class D boys basketball runners-up.
The Upper Peninsula’s all-time winningest female basketball coach coached at The Barn, as did the Upper Peninsula’s all-time winningest male basketball coach. And when Ewen-Trout Creek advanced to the 2022 Division 4 Final, its roster was littered with names from E-TC’s past:
► Leading scorer Jaden Borseth’s dad played on the 1995 team that advanced to the Class D Regional Final.
► Kelsey Jilek’s dad played on the 1992 team.
► Brendan Polkky’s dad is currently an assistant coach for E-TC and played on the 1991 team that also advanced to the Class D Regional Final.
► Caden Besonen’s dad Dave starred on the 1982 state runner-up team. Caden’s uncle Brad is the E-TC head coach. And Brad’s dad, Bryan, played on the 1972 championship team.
The Barn hosted its final E-TC game in 1998 and is now owned by Gary Fors, who also played on the 1972 title team. It’s now a community gym of sorts, and many members of the 2022 team worked out there growing up.
E-TC grad Kristin Ojaniemi – an award-winning documentary film maker and photographer, and the TV producer and host of “Discovering” for 906 Outdoors – is taking a look at the history of “The Barn” as well as its ties to the 2022 team in an eight-part series called “Born in the Barn.” The first two parts are complete, and the entire series will be available to view at KristinOjaniemi.com.
I had a chance to ask Ojaniemi about the project and why it’s so special to so many people.
Kristin, how did you come up with the idea to document the history of The Barn?
The idea to document the history of The Barn and E-TC basketball developed over time. Five years ago I had a conversation with Dan Truckey of the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University, and when I told him where I went to high school, we got on the topic of basketball and how E-TC was a powerhouse and that "there must be something in the water" here. Fast forward to 2021, and I saw on Facebook some photos of the inside of The Barn and all the newspapers Gary Fors had lined the walls with, sort of like a museum. February of 2022 I realized it was 50 years since the 1972 boys state championship and 40 years since the 1982 state runner-up seasons. I like anniversaries in history and thought it would be the perfect time to do some sort of documentary. Originally my focus was Gary and The Barn and more of the 70s and 80s boys and girls seasons, but once the 2022 boys started advancing in the tournament, that obviously changed.
What did the 2022 team’s run to the Finals mean to the players from the ’72 and ’82 teams?
The 2022 run meant a lot to the players of '72 and '82 because many of those boys are sons, grandsons, great-nephews of those guys. Bryan Besonen of the '72 team is coach Brad Besonen's father. Many of them traveled to every tournament game, and watching the 2022 season brought back memories of their glory days. They're definitely very proud of the 2022 team and the tradition that E-TC has continued through the years. Watching them watch those games was just as fun as watching the court. The 2022 team's run to the Finals meant a lot to the whole community. So many others traveled all the way to Lansing to cheer them on, and there is just a ton of pride in this team. I went to the banner unveiling a few weeks ago, and it was a huge crowd at the game to watch those few seconds of history being made.
What is your history with The Barn?
I graduated from Ewen-Trout Creek in 2000. We were in the "new" school then, but I spent four years – seventh-10th grade – in the "old" school, which had so much more character than the new one! I did play basketball seventh-10th – junior high and junior varsity. I was a benchwarmer most of those years. I loved the game but didn't spend any time offseason playing or practicing like others. I was also a cheerleader those years too, and if you look closely at one of the newspaper photos from the last game in the Barn, I'm in the background. Ha ha! This was back when girls basketball was in the fall and boys in the winter, so you could do both. As others in the documentary mention, The Barn was also where you hung out at lunch, and gym class was in there, and homecoming activities. Filming in there brought back a lot of memories.
What did Nancy Osier (U.P.’s winningest female basketball coach) and Tom Caudill (U.P.’s winningest male basketball coach) think made The Barn such a difficult place for opposing teams to play?
Thinking back to Nancy and Tom's interviews, I think the difficulty for other teams really boiled down to the atmosphere and the E-TC fans and that intimidation factor. E-TC had the ultimate homecourt advantage in The Barn, and their players spent hours upon hours practicing on that floor. And the school's history and tradition of rarely losing a home game is also intimidating.
There’s obviously a lot of family ties from the 2022 team to earlier teams – and it was the 50th anniversary of the ’72 win – did they feel more pressure along the way because of that?
I think the 2022 boys had this feeling that they wanted to one-up their grandfathers/fathers. I think it was Kelsey Jilek that told his grandfather, George Hardes (1972), that they had one more game in their schedule so they could potentially have a better record if they won all their games. But none of them came out and mentioned that the anniversary put pressure on them, but I’m sure it was there. They set out to win it all from the beginning and put the work in, and it paid off. There are a lot of parallels in these winning seasons.
When will the next part of the series be released?
Part 3, I should have done by the end of February. Part 3 focuses on the 1973 girls state champs; 1973 was the first year there was a state final for girls basketball after Title IX, and E-TC won the Class D title. And then I plan to release each part every two months with the final, Part 8, done by the end of 2023. This is just a fun hobby/personal project, I guess you'd say, so I only have so much time to dedicate to it after all my "real" work.
(PHOTOS of "The Barn" courtesy of Kristin Ojaniemi.)