ESCANABA — So far, so good for the Escanaba girls basketball team. The Eskymos are 13-0 after rolling to a 65-36 triumph at Bark River-Harris last Friday, with three more wins already than all of last season.
Coach Tracy Hudson said everything started in a cornfield in Carney during the summer.
“We lost to Ewen-Trout Creek, West Iron County and Bark River-Harris in summer tournaments,” he added. “We were taking a step back and a step forward. We kind of found ourselves in a small gym at Carney-Nadeau. We had to go through some growing pains, but played real well at Michigan Tech and Marquette. We came out of the summer feeling we could be all right.”
They’ve been outstanding.
Coming off a 10-10 finish last season, Escanaba has won nine of its games by double digits under Hudson, who took over the girls program this season after leading the varsity boys from 1997-2022.
The Eskymos improved to 5-0 in the Great Northern Conference with a 62-46 triumph over Menominee on Jan. 16 and have a two-game lead in the league standings with three GNC games to play.
“It feels great to be where we are,” said senior forward Mari Bink, who averages 15.1 points a game. “We were confident coming into the season, but you never know what can happen. We enjoy playing together, and we’re having fun. It’s crazy, but we get excited.”
Hudson is happy with all the success as well but knows the Eskymos will be tested in the days to come. They visit Calumet (10-2) tonight and Houghton (12-1) on Feb. 3.
“The teams in the Keweenaw are very good,” he said. “We’re going to have to bring our A game. Our team motto is ‘All In.’ Coach (Lisa) Maki and the girls came up with it. We have to bring it every day. I think we still have a lot of room for growth.”
Still, Escanaba will enter those games having handed the lone loss to another of the elite teams from the Keweenaw. Sophomore center Grayson LaMarche scored the game-winner on a layup in the final 12 seconds of a 50-49 win over Hancock (11-1) on Jan. 13.
“They definitely have some good teams in the Copper Country,” said senior point guard Carney Salo, who was forced out of that game after hitting her head on the floor late in the third quarter. “I had a rough couple days, but it felt good playing in the Menominee game (three days later).
“I didn’t have any hesitation. We were able to take away (Menominee’s) passing lanes. Defense is the one thing you can control.”
Escanaba is giving up just under 46 points per game against a schedule that’s included wins over four teams with at least 10 wins and eight teams .500 or better. Rival Marquette would be a ninth over .500 if not for a sweep by the Eskymos.
Salo, who didn’t play last season due to an ACL injury, is averaging 7.3 points, 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
“A personal highlight is just getting a chance to play after missing last year,” she said. “I think that makes me more motivated, although you always want to give it your all.”
Junior forward Keira Maki, a 49-percent field goal shooter, scored 24 points and LaMarche added 13 at BR-H.
“That has become a good rivalry,” said Maki. “They’re quick, and they put a lot of pressure on you. They don’t give up. They’re definitely well coached.”
Maki is averaging 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocked shots, four steals and 2.8 assists per game. She went down with an ankle injury during a 49-33 triumph at Alpena on Dec. 13 but returned in time to help the Eskymos post a 74-44 triumph at Gladstone two weeks later.
“Gladstone definitely has a good freshman (Lillie Johnson), but we put it all together and got the ball moving a lot,” said Maki. “They had a few other players we also had to stop. I felt I wasn’t as well prepared as I could have been if I hadn’t gotten injured at Alpena.”
The Eskymos opened this season with a 65-50 triumph at Marquette, then defeated Gaylord St. Mary (60-45) and the host Ramblers (50-42) in the McBain Invitational.
“We felt we needed to get a win at Marquette,” said Hudson. “Gaylord St. Mary and McBain were polar opposites and got on a little bit of a roll after that. The game with Sault Ste. Marie (a 62-57 victory) was a very big game here. That was similar to Hancock. We couldn’t relax for a moment.
“We’ve separated from the rest of the GNC teams a little and found a way to win the close games. We’re excited about where we’re at. It’s like whipped cream right now, but we’ve told the girls to keep the eye of the tiger and keep improving.”
Junior guard Saylor Henderson has provided timely shooting from outside, hitting 37 percent of her shots from 3-point range and 44 percent inside the arc. She’s averaging 7.2 points.
“The 3-point shot is a big part of our game, and Saylor is a green-light shooter for us,” said Hudson. “Because we play uptempo, we get good looks in transition. We’re also a good free throw shooting team (averaging 67 percent).”
Hudson said he also appreciates the help from the assistant coaches.
“Coach Maki has done a real good job,” he added. “She understands the girls, and our younger coaches (C.J. Barron and Darren Landis) absorb everything like a sponge.”
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) Escanaba's Keira Maki (12) leads a break against Menominee during a Jan. 16 victory. (Middle) Eskymos coach Tracy Hudson talks things over with his team during last Friday's win over Bark River-Harris. (Photos courtesy of RRNSports.com.)