#TBT: Inkala Celebrated as Athlete, Coach

June 25, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The mid-Michigan and statewide tennis communities are mourning the death last weekend of longtime Okemos girls coach Al Inkala, who led the Chieftains to four MHSAA championships over a 20-season tenure that ended in 2013. He was 66 years old.

From 1994-2004, his Okemos girls tennis teams finished either first or second at their MHSAA Finals all but 1996, and his 1998-2001 teams won four straight Division 2 titles. But those were his only final chapters to a high school career that began as one of the most accomplished athletes of his time from the Upper Peninsula, where he played football, basketball, tennis, baseball and ran track for Wakefield before graduating in 1967.

A 6-foot-5 center, Inkala was a Class C all-state basketball selection as a senior, leading the Cardinals to the MHSAA Class C Semifinals with 33 points in an 85-60 Quarterfinal win over Gaylord. A three-year varsity basketball player, Inkala scored a school-record 540 points as a senior and a school-record 1,160 for his career. He also scored a school-record 42 points against Baraga during the 1966-67 season as Wakefield strung together its first undefeated regular-season finish. Inkala was second in his league in scoring after finishing first as a junior and made the all-U.P. Class C team after both of those seasons.

Inkala also was selected for the top senior basketball award for the Michigan-Wisconsin Conference by the largest margin ever accorded for the award to that point, and based not only on his athletic proficiency but also good sportsmanship.

His prowess extended far beyond the basketball court. In tennis, Inkala was undefeated at singles as a senior until his second match of the U.P. Finals – in those days, there was only one division in the Upper Peninsula, and only one flight for singles and one for doubles at all MHSAA Finals – as he led Wakefield to a fifth-place team finish. He was the singles champion in the Michigan-Wisconsin Conference.

Inkala ran four events – the 220-yard dash, 120-yard high hurdles and half-mile and mile relays – in helping Wakefield to its Regional track &field title in 1967. Wakefield then finished second as a team at the U.P. Class C Final, with Inkala taking fifth in the high hurdles.

As noted above, Inkala also played baseball and football; on the football team, he played both offense and defense and was the punter. Inkala also served as his class president, sung in the school chorus and was part of the conservation club at Wakefield High, about a 20-minute drive from the Wisconsin border. 

He went on to play basketball at Northern Michigan University, serving as a team captain as a senior in 1970-71. He led the team in rebounding that winter and sits 30th on NMU’s single-season rebounding list and 12th on the career list, having played in 90 games over his four seasons.

On a personal note, Inkala was a huge help to me covering mid-Michigan girls tennis while at the Lansing State Journal from 1999-2011. He was the best of coaches when it came to being honest about his players’ abilities and making sure those from other schools got deserved recognition as well – especially during a period when his teams’ No. 5 singles and doubles players could’ve played the top flights for nearly every school in the surrounding area and likely beyond.

The stories heard around our office this week focused on how he worked to give Okemos’ opponents the best experiences possible when facing his incredibly-talented teams. 

Against those with just enough players to fill a lineup, or teams with most athletes in perhaps only their first few seasons of play, he’d fill his lineup with players who otherwise didn’t see the court when Okemos faced others of the state’s elite. The Chieftains shared their equipment and knowledge with many opponents, providing humble leadership in a tennis community that embodied a coach who gave the same always from the background and with little fanfare despite deserving much. 

The Lansing State Journal talked to a number of his area counterparts this week; click here for that report.

Inkala died June 20. A memorial service will be conducted at 1 p.m. Sunday at Okemos Community Church.

PHOTOS: (Top) Al Inkala, far left, accepts with his teammates the Class C District championship trophy during the 1967 season. (Middle) Inkala launches a free throw during the title game against Ontonagon. (Below) Inkala led his Okemos girls tennis teams to six MHSAA championships. (Top photos courtesy of the Ironwood Daily Globe; bottom courtesy of the Lansing State Journal.)

Ferndale Caps Winter Season with 1st Boys Hoops Title Since 1966

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

March 25, 2023

EAST LANSING – One team was going to end a long championship drought in Saturday’s boys basketball Division 2 Final.

Ferndale’s was especially lengthy, and spanned more than five decades.

And now it is no longer.

The Eagles won their first Finals championship in 57 years with a 44-38 victory over Grand Rapids South Christian at Breslin Center.

Ferndale had last won a state title in 1966.

“The drought is over,” Eagles coach Juan Rickman said. “That’s big time, and the biggest part about making it down here was seeing how charged up the community was and the school was so charged up. It’s the greatest feeling to see how vested our community was in our success.”

Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim.Ferndale senior Christopher Williams led the way with 16 points and four rebounds.

“It feels great,” Williams said. “Especially since the past four years we’ve been to the same place and lost twice in a row to the same team, and now it feels like weight is lifted off my shoulders.

“We started off the season 1-5, and going till now we knew if we stayed together through adversity then we could do it. And it made it more impactful that it was our coach’s first state title, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Added senior point guard Cameron Reed, who had a game-high seven assists: “It’s incredibly special. I wasn't born back then, my teammates weren’t born and my coaches weren’t born. It definitely rejuvenated the whole city and community.”

Ferndale led 8-4 at the end of the first quarter, and both teams shot poorly in the first half. The Eagles connected on a paltry 24 percent from the field, and South Christian on 35 percent of its attempts. Nate Brinks drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Sailors a 16-14 halftime lead. 

Junior guard Jake Vermaas opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to make it 19-14, but Ferndale made a charge.

The Eagles sliced the deficit to one (25-24) on a 3-pointer by Trenton Ruth, and Cameron Reed tied it at 28-28 with an acrobatic layup.

“Our team was mentally strong, and I’m so proud of them for their accomplishment,” Rickman said. “Just so committed to the process and just being resilient.”

Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.An 8-2 spurt by Ferndale over the first three minutes of the fourth quarter made it 36-30.

“That was extremely important, and we always want to win the first four minutes,” Rickman said. “And we tried to open up the fourth quarter with what we call a kill; we want to get five straight stops and score on two or three of those possessions so we can build a lead. We did that fairly well against a good team.”

South Christian was attempting to win football and basketball Finals championships during the same school year, and was looking for its first basketball title since 2005.

“It was a really hard-fought game and I thought we played at our speed, but it got away from us a little bit,” first-year Sailors coach Taylor Johnson said.

“But it doesn’t take away from what we accomplished this year. We’ve been through it all, including three season-ending injuries, and to still make it to the state finals is an incredible feat.”

Senior Jacob DeHaan and Vermaas led the Sailors with 14 points apiece, while senior Sam Medendorp added seven points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Ferndale raises the Division 2 championship trophy Saturday night at Breslin Center. (Middle) Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim. (Below) Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.