Oscoda Teams Rise From Past to Perfection

February 8, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

OSCODA — The tide has turned in Oscoda.

After struggling year after year in boys and girls basketball, the Owls are enjoying quite a turnaround on the hardcourt this winter as both teams enter the final month of the regular season undefeated — just one of two schools in the state to be collectively unbeaten in boys and girls hoops.

The boys team boasts a record of 15-0 and is 9-0 in the North Star League Big Dipper division, while the girls squad has cruised to a 12-0 mark, including going 5-0 in league play.

It hasn’t always been that way, however.

“There’s a lot of years where we really struggled,” said Oscoda varsity boys basketball coach Seth Alda, a 2003 graduate of the school who is in his seventh year at the helm.  “It wasn’t that long ago. There were a lot of years where we not only struggled but a lot of teams beat us by quite a bit.”

The boys team has reached a stretch where it has failed to win a league championship in 27 years or District title in 18 straight seasons, while the girls program became infamous for having lost 89 consecutive games at one point.

“We went almost four and a half years without winning a game,” said Oscoda varsity girls basketball coach Mark Toppi, who took over the girls program four years ago. “They had only had a couple wins in the past three years before I took the job.”

The Owls had been caught in a rut for most of the last few decades, partly due to a precipitous decline in the school’s enrollment after Wurtsmith Air Force Base was decommissioned in 1993. As families left the area, Oscoda became a shell of itself. At one time Class B playing within the North East Michigan Conference, the school was unable to remain competitive with its league rivals as its student population was slashed in half. It eventually made sense to leave the NEMC, and Oscoda toiled as an independent before finding a landing spot in the Huron Shores Conference, which eventually morphed into a reconfigured North Star League in 2014.

Things began to trend in the Owls’ favor last season as a group of talented and ambitious athletes started making their mark. It’s a core of players who have gotten better by working hard, dedicating themselves, including honing their games and picking up additional competition on local travel teams.

“We kind of saw it coming,” said Alda. “Last year we were 14-8, which was our first winning season in 15 years. We returned a lot of players off that team. Last year we were young, and this year we’re still young. We have a lot coming back next year too.”

The Owls’ main core consists of juniors Brayden Mallak, Gabe Kellstrom, Devin Thomas and Chance Kruse, as well as sophomores Owen Franklin and Gavin Lueck.

“We’re guard-oriented,” said Alda. “We like to get up and down the court. We press. We shoot a lot of threes. Typically, we go four out and one in — four guards and one post player. We like to push the tempo. We like to increase possessions. We’ve got three kids (Mallak, Kellstrom and Franklin) who are shooting over 35 percent — a couple of them over 40 — from the 3-point line.”

The girls team managed to come up with 13 wins a year ago despite not having a senior on the roster. That was part of the ascent from three victories in Toppi’s first season, to seven wins two years ago. The 13-9 record in 2017-18 earned Toppi the Associated Press’ Class C Coach of the Year Award.

With all that returning experience from the best girls team Oscoda had seen in years, the Owls were primed for an even better season.

“I could tell we were going to have a good year, just because of all the work they put in over the summer,” said Toppi. “We had a lot of success (last summer). We play up all the time whenever we go to team camps. We always try to play Class B or Class A schools. We take a lot of beatings in the summer. This year was the first year that we were winning against some of those schools. That was a nice sign. I try to tell them, ‘If we’re losing by 15 to a Class A school, that’s not bad.’ This year we were beating some of them.”

The Oscoda girls team has a bit more experience than the boys, with senior Katelyn Etherton in her fourth year as a starting guard. She reached the 1,000-point mark in her career earlier this year. Junior post player Lauren Langley is another key veteran who teams with Etherton, and each average close to 17 points per game. Sophomore Macy Kellstrom leads the team in steals and assists as the point guard, and classmate Izzy Hulverson is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.

The problem the girls team has discovered is it isn’t getting pushed by the teams on its schedule. The Owls are winning by an average of 34 points per game. A 41-25 win over Tawas was the closest to date. Toppi hopes not having a close game during the regular season won’t hurt the Owls when they get to the postseason. For now, he’s just focused on getting the Owls ready for a tournament run.

“I’m just trying to get them to play hard and practice hard,” he said. “I don’t want them to look at the schedule. We’re still trying to get competition in practice and get better every day.”

The boys games have been a little less one-sided, particularly two clashes against league rival Mio. Oscoda beat the Thunderbolts both times, but one was a seven-point win in a back-and-forth game a week ago and the other was a 35-33 nail-biter earlier this season that wasn’t decided until Mallak drove the length of the court and scored on a buzzer beater.

The buzz has caught up to the Owls as the wins have continued to pile up for both teams.

“Around the school I feel like everybody’s wearing Oscoda across their chest a lot more proudly than what it was a while ago,” said Franklin. “Wherever you go, people know who you are now.

“Every practice Mr. Alda talks to us about how we could be the first in so many years to do this (or that). Early in the year we were 8-0 and he was like, ‘You’ve got a chance to go 9-0. That hasn’t happened in 30 years. He talks to us a lot about making history.”

The struggles the school endured in basketball are not forgotten, but both teams are doing their part to make better memories on the court. The girls already snapped a 48-game losing streak to nearby rival Tawas, and the boys swept the Braves for the first time in 20 years. The boys team is also close to ending that elusive conference championship drought, and both teams have their eyes on earning some District tournament hardware.

“I keep talking about how exciting it is when you get to tournament time, if you can make a run,” said Alda, who was a freshman on Oscoda’s last basketball Regional champion in 2000. “This is just a really cool thing to be a part of.”

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) Lauren Langley, left, and Brayden Mallak have been key to Oscoda’s perfect starts; Mallak here hits the game-winning shot against Mio. (Middle) Katelyn Etherton beats everyone to the basket during a win over Lincoln Alcona. (Below) The Owls celebrate that Mio victory Dec. 13. (Photos courtesy of the Oscoda girls and boys basketball programs.)

St. Clair County Celebrates 1st Mr. Basketball Winner, PHN's Jamison

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

March 29, 2023

The Jamison family has spent plenty of time over the years driving long distances as Tyler chased his basketball dreams.

Bay & ThumbAfter the Port Huron Northern senior achieved one of the biggest ones, they had to put some more mileage on the family vehicle.

As the newly-crowned Mr. Basketball, Jamison was invited to a special presentation during the Boys Basketball Finals this past Saturday afternoon at the Breslin Center. It was an invitation Tyler and his family didn’t hesitate to accept, and the drive from Port Huron to East Lansing was nothing.

But it did cause a pretty big change to some other travel plans.

Tyler and his family were scheduled to fly to Florida on Friday for spring break. That flight had to be canceled, though, and instead, the family made the drive down later.

“There were some jokes about just leaving me and letting me find my own way down there,” Jamison said.

While they joke, there’s nowhere the Jamisons would have rather been Saturday than at the Breslin. As a true basketball family – Tyler’s dad Brian is also the coach at Northern, and his brother Alex was a standout freshman for the Huskies – they have a great appreciation for the Mr. Basketball Award and its significance.

“I had said a while ago, ‘Hey, if we’re still in the tournament, we’ll be playing Friday,” Brian Jamison said. “I even mentioned that it would be a miracle, but Tyler could win Mr. Basketball. Now we’re eating plane tickets and driving down to Florida. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we’re not missing this.”

Jamison was the overwhelming winner of the award, which is named after Hal Schram and given out by the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan. He received 3,058 points in the vote to become its 43rd winner. Curtis Williams of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (2,004 points), Kaden Brown of Grand Rapids Catholic Central (1,918), Sonny Wilson of Detroit U-D Jesuit (1,883) and Ryan Hurst of North Farmington (1,811) were the other finalists.

“It was just insane,” Tyler Jamison said. “I can’t even really put into words how I felt – it was just a dream come true, a culmination of all the hard work that’s been put in over the years. My mom was in the other room (when his dad called to tell him), and I just hugged her and we were kind of screaming. The dog was getting riled up. It was fun. There were a few tears shed.”

Jamison throws down a dunk.Jamison, who signed with Fairleigh Dickinson in December, finished the season averaging 26.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game. He was named the Macomb Area Conference White division MVP after leading Northern to the league title and a 20-4 overall record.

Even with all that, winning the most prestigious individual basketball award in the state didn’t seem like a reality.

“We purposely try to play a tough schedule, and we purposely got into some showcases because we wanted people to see, not only him play, but us play,” Brian Jamison said. “We had beaten Skyline and Hamtramck, and went up to Croswell-Lexington and won up there, and I thought, ‘OK, now he’s done it against some of the better teams.’ Up to that point, when we played those tougher teams, he’s always showed out well, but it’s different when you’re not winning them. But at that point, I thought he had a chance. Really, I was just hoping he would get on the list. To win it was kind of above and beyond what I had hoped for.”

On the court, Tyler’s impact on the program was pretty obvious and immediate.

He’s the program’s all-time leading scorer – a record he set as a junior – with 1,763 career points. He also holds Northern records for career rebounds (825), points in a game (59), rebounds in a game (28), career field goals made (638) and career free throws made (439). As a junior, he was named MAC Blue MVP.

Northern did not lose a league game in either of the past two seasons.

But Northern is likely to see future success because of Tyler’s non-statistical impact.

Leading a young team, including a group of star freshmen – his brother Alex, Cam Harju and Amir Morelan – was a major part of Tyler’s job this season.

Northern’s home games were must-see events this winter, as the Huskies were one of Division 1’s top teams, and Tyler was providing nightly highlights and must-see performances. Even in his final game, a loss against Macomb Dakota in the District Final, Jamison treated the standing-room crowd with a 46-point performance and a halfcourt shot at the third-quarter buzzer in a valiant effort.

“That’s the big thing, you want the students and the school community to support you, and they did an amazing job,” Tyler Jamison said. “We also had people from the community that wanted to support us and watch us play. Port Huron High had a really good season, too, and I think both schools in the city had that public support. That’s huge. It makes you feel like you’re playing for more than yourself.”

Among those crowds were the next generation of Huskies, some of whom were coached by Tyler in youth basketball. As he’s the first Mr. Basketball winner from St. Clair County, those kids now have a hometown example of someone who has reached the highest heights.

“I think interest gets sparked when the little kids come to the gym, like, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” Brian Jamison said. “They want to play for Northern or (Port Huron) High. And with him winning Mr. Basketball, I think it gives kids a little bit of ‘Hey, why not me?’ I do think it helps motivate younger people. We’ve had great crowds at our games. I think the area is excited about basketball. It really is a great basketball area.”

With all of that excitement surrounding him, Tyler had one more challenge after the season – keeping the secret that he had won. He found out six days before the award was announced.

“It was terrible – especially when it’s something of that magnitude,” he said. “You want to tell everyone. You want to tell your friends and family. It was hard to be like, ‘No, I don’t know.’”

Paul CostanzoPaul 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) Tyler Jamison, second from left, with his parents and brother, stands with his newly-received Mr. Basketball Award trophy during the ceremony at the Detroit Free Press. (Middle) Jamison throws down a dunk. (Photos courtesy of the Jamison family.)