Esky freshman impress with 16-3 record

ESCANABA – The recent basketball season proved successful for the Escanaba freshman as they finished 16-3.

Esky’s jayvees also enjoyed their share of success in a 12-8 campaign.

The freshman were runners-up in the Great Northern Conference at 6-2, splitting their games with GNC champ Menominee and Gladstone.

They beat the Maroons 41-35 at home on Jan. 13, then dropped a 56-37 decision at Menominee Jan. 29.

“At the time (Jan. 13), I didn’t realize how good they were,” said freshman coach Kirk Schwalbach. “They (Menominee) played a lot better down there and things didn’t come together for us. We just had to learn from it and the kids responded by playing hard.”

The Eskymos then won their last seven games, including a 41-39 nailbiter over Gladstone at home on Feb. 21. Guard C.J. Barron made a steal with six seconds left to play and raced to the opposite end of the floor for the game-winner.

“I got so emotional,” said Schwalbach. “I couldn’t talk to the kids. I was just so happy.”

At Gladstone, the Eskymos dropped a 37-36 overtime decision on Dec. 20.

“We were trailing 28-20 going into the fourth quarter, then we outscored them 12-4,” said Schwalbach. “We had the ball with nine seconds left in overtime and didn’t convert on an opportunity.

“When you work with freshman you’re not sure how things are going to go. You don’t really know who you have coming in. It’s a process of teaching fundamentals and hope you win some games along the way. There were games we could have won by a lot more. But it was an opportunity to play other kids, and I think they all benefitted from it.”

Justin Popelka, a 6-foot-2 center, averaged 12 points and slightly less than five rebounds a game. Gavin Peacock, a 6-3 forward, averaged more than five boards and Barron was a 75-percent free throw shooter.

“Justin was probably our most consistent player,” said Schwalbach. “Justin had his high game (19 points) in our win over Menominee and Gavin played his best game (16 points) in our home game against Gladstone. C.J. was a real good 3-point shooter. He’s very coachable and a hard working kid. He really stepped up late in the season.”

Point guard Clay Johnson directed the offense. Guard-forward Tyler Larson, who started half the season, averaged five points and Terrace Butryn hit 14 points in a victory over Kingsford.

“Clay understood his role and played good defense,” said Schwalbach. “Tyler is a real athletic kid who improved a lot. Terrance was a sparkplug and was very coachable. He played the passing lanes well.”

Filling reserve roles were point guards Brendan Malmstead and Bill Soper, 6-2 center Josh Simmons, forwards Ethan Cooper and Jack Lynch and guard Garrin Salo.

“This is one of the most enjoyable years I’ve had,” said Schwalbach, who recently completed his fifth season. “The parents were great all year, too. This is the best record we’ve had while I’ve been here, and I feel I was a small part of it. This is something the kids can hang their hat on, yet they can’t be satisfied.”

The jayvees were GNC runners-up to Kingsford, finishing 5-3.

“We’re pretty pleased with that,” said coach Scott Hanson. “We had a couple games that could have gone either way, but the season probably went about the way we expected. This was a pretty successful season.”

Danny VanEffen, a 6-3 sophomore forward, averaged 12 points, and 6-2 sophomore center Brandon Punzel carried a nine-point average.

“I thought we had real solid inside play,” said Hanson. “Dan was a real solid all-around player who had a tremendous season, and Brandon gave us little bit of a different dimension. Brandon was able to play inside and outside.”

Hanson says a key victory took place on Jan. 17 when the Eskymos rallied past Marquette 40-36.

“We were down by eight points with three minutes to go and came back and won,” he added. “That was one of those momentum games for us. Then, we expected a real tough game at Marquette and held a double-digit lead most of the way (in a 64-54 triumph on Feb. 7).”

Freshman guard Dalton Deneau and forward Tyler Willette finished with eight-point averages and sophomore guard Andrew Stannard averaged five points.

“Dalton and Tyler are real intelligent players,” said Hanson. “I thought they made the adjustment (from freshman ball) pretty easily. They added a dimension to our team. Andrew is pretty athletic. He shot well from outside and was able to drive to the basket. In general, we had multiple guys who could handle the ball. Overall, we had some pretty versatile guys.”

Sharing the point guard duties were sophomores T.J. Schlenvogt and Billy Baribeau.

“T.J. was more of a 3-point shooter and Billy made things happen for us,” said Hanson. “These guys did a large share of our ballhandling.”

Those helping in reserve roles include sophomore forwards Nick Wilson, Matt Gardner and Nick Becotte and guard Chris Johnson.

“The kids did a real solid job and improved as the year went on,” said Hanson. “Coach Schwalbach and I focused on getting the kids ready for the next level, and I think we have some solid players who are going to make contributions to the varsity program in the next couple years.”