Strong Esky group looking for big year

ESCANABA – Numbers and experience are in ample supply at Escanaba, which is set to open its cross country season in the Munising Invitational Tuesday at 11 a.m. on the Valley Spur Cross Country Ski Trails.

Esky has 35 boys and 20 girls on its teams and the numbers are still growing, according to coach Jake Berlinski.

“We anticipate gaining a few more kids once school starts,” he said. “We have a combined 21 seniors on these teams. Having experience is a big thing. The kids have been there and they’re hungry. The seniors know this is their last shot.”

Gone through graduation are last year’s captains Jordan Ogren and Steve Prica.

The Esky boys, who were Upper Peninsula Division 1 runners-up the past two seasons, return a all-state selections in senior Eric Cousineau and sophomore Joey Wolfe.

“Eric has been running and lifting weights all summer,” said Berlinski. “The leadership he brings as a captain is phenomenal. Joey is one of those guys we don’t worry about. We know what he’s going to bring to the table. He’s a very gifted runner who works hard.”

Other senior returners are Gabe Ostrenga and All-U.P. pick Tyler Hardwick, who are entering their fourth and third seasons, respectively.

Additional returners are junior twins Jon and Chris Hook and classmate Eric LaPalm.

Also in the mix are senior newcomers Mark Whitman, Levi Wunder and Jake Rodman and sophomore newcomer Denham Miron.

“Mark will have an opportunity to run varsity for the first time,” said Berlinski. “I think he can help us. Levi is a very successful hockey player and Jake has been very successful in basketball. It’s nice to have them from a leadership standpoint. They’re not afraid to work hard. When the younger kids see that, they tend to follow suit.

“We have depth, which is invaluable. Everything the kids do, they’ll have to earn.”

Despite their experience and past success, Berlinski knows the Eskymos have plenty of challenges in store.

“The GNC (Great Northern Conference) is always competitive,” he said. “Marquette is always strong and Kingsford made a nice run toward the end of last year. Gladstone will be formidable. Gary (Whitmer) is a phenomenal coach. His kids are always ready. Outside our conference, Sault Ste. Marie will be competitive and Houghton has a big team. Their (Houghton’s) depth rivals ours. This is always an exciting time of the year because everybody has a chance to win. You really don’t know how you stack up with other teams until that first starting gun goes off.”

The girls return senior all-stater Aimee Giese and classmates Isabelle Wellman and Jordyn VanPortfliet.

“These girls were three of our strongest summer runners (in the Esky Running Club),” said Berlinski. “They dedicated themselves to coming into this season in shape. They have that senior sense of urgency.”

Gone through graduation is Aubree Peterson, who’s running at Wisconsin-Stevens Point this fall, Lynsey Collins and Sarah Hook.

Other returners are junior Callie Heller and sophomores Jerrika McAlpine and Michaela Bougie.

Also vying for varsity spots are junior newcomers Adrienne Wessel and Jesse Flath and freshman Brooke Baker.

Among other teams, Berlinski points to Marquette as the team to beat in the GNC and U.P. Finals.

“They’re returning a huge chunk of their roster,” he said. “They’re obviously phenomenal, which is great for them. Everybody is deserving of a little success. We’re just hoping we can get in there and compete and make them earn their U.P. title a little.

“Gladstone has Leah (Woelffer) coming back. She’s supremely talented and kind of mixes things up. Menominee losing Kameron (Burmeister) is a huge blow, but they’ll recover. The Kingsford and Stephenson kids also work hard and have some good runners.”