ESCANABA - Dena Fedell knew she eventually wanted to be a head coach. She also had the wisdom to know when the time was right. After serving for nine years as the freshman girls basketball coach at Escanaba, Fedell is now ready to take the leap. She has a plan in place, talent to work with and the knowledge to be successful as Escanaba's new varsity girls basketball coach.
Christa Erickson is looking to reinvigorate the Eskymos varsity volleyball program with her passion of the game as the program's new coach.
Monday evening, the Escanaba school board approved both hires.
"I always hoped there would be an opening at some level," said Fedell Tuesday afternoon. "When the position was available 8-9 years ago, people asked why I didn't apply. I said I wasn't ready and I needed the experience for myself to go forward. I didn't want to go in and be defeated. I wanted to carry everything on my shoulders and coach physically, and know what I'm talking about."
Athletic director Dave Wilson said in a statement Tuesday, "I'm very happy to have both coaches. Dena has paid her dues and is a huge asset to the girls basketball program. Christa is an Eskymo graduate and played basketball and at NMU and volleyball at Escanaba. She has a strong passion for the game of volleyball and I'm hoping as things play out, that she will continue to help out at the lower levels of basketball too. Both ladies are very dedicated to high school sports."
Fedell, while pointing out that freshman basketball is in a constant state of flux with girls constantly moving up, compiled a 69-59 record in her nine seasons.
She had two very strong coaching influences in her life before coming to Escanaba.
She played college ball for current University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women's basketball coach Kevin Borseth while at Gogebic Community College, and played her high school basketball for Nancy Osier at Ewen-Trout Creek.
"Kevin Borseth and Nancy Osier are big people in my life with basketball and I'm still in contact with both of them," said Fedell. "I brought my freshman girls to UWGB last year because I wanted them to see what it's is all about. The opportunity is there, but you have to work hard on and off the court. All year long, you know the ones that are putting the work in."
Erickson was a 2005 Escanaba graduate and played under coach Kim Mathews. She was recruited by Northern Michigan University to play both basketball and volleyball, but settled on basketball. She was the head eighth grade volleyball coach at Escanaba the last two years and also helped former Escanaba girls basketball coach Kelly O'Connell on his staff. She plans on continuing to help with basketball in addition to her volleyball post.
Though she played basketball at NMU, Erickson said she kept in touch with volleyball and planned on returning to the sport.
"I really have a love of the game. When I was here I wasn't aware of my skill level but I found my niche as a setter, which is like the point guard position for basketball. It was fun, it was a blast," she said Tuesday evening.
"(At NMU) I had contact with volleyball players, so you stay with it, and watching it made me think about it. Now, being back in this school system and this area, hopefully I can do the same thing for them."
Former Esky volleyball coach Bron Harmon was a young coach toward the end of Erickson's high school career. Erickson said Harmon's passion for the game was contagious.
"I got to know Bron really well. She was the younger coach coming in, bringing in fresh ideas. She was the female in an area dominated by male coaches at the time. I hope I can carry that on," she said. "She has such a passion for the sport as well and I plan on talking to her before they leave the area and touch base with where she left off with the girls."
The basketball team Fedell inherits went 4-17 last season but includes talented defenders Lynsey Collins and Ashley Cook and big forwards in Michelle LaFave and Sam Connor, who missed her entire sophomore season with a shoulder injury.
"I've never coached LaFave, Cook or Connor so I'm excited to go in and finally get the opportunity to have all my players in one setting and coach them. We have a lot of quickness and I'm excited," said Fedell. "I had Lynsey as a freshman and I enjoyed her. She was very respectful to me and a great kid and a great athlete.
"Michelle could play anywhere on the court. I want to mold her into a great power forward and outside shooter."
Fedell put the notion of favoring players out the window though, saying to her prospective players that last names don't mean anything.
"We're anticipating 16 or 17 girls trying out next year and there will be players cut, some who have never been cut in their life, but you have to put the best team forward," she said. "It's not about politics. It's about the love of basketball. From when these girls were freshmen, I said I don't want to know your last name. You could be my best friend's daughter but that doesn't mean you'll make the team. I'll hold true to that."
Erickson has an idea of how she wants the game to be played at the high school level, but said first she needs to find out what kind of team she has.
"I want to find out about the personnel. Where do they stand? Where do they see themselves going?" she said. "I think I bring that youth, that excitement and passion for coaching, but I haven't been in the game of coaching for that long so it may be a little different.
"Having played at the college level, I hope we can make it a higher intensity, faster paced game, but I have to see the personnel I'll have, start there and base my philosophy off that. But you don't want to change everything on these girls. You can't just flip your program."
Fedell said her philosophy is to keep things simple and not overload her players. Once they are familiar with the scheme, she said, they can adlib.
"First and foremost, I have to find out the comfort level of these girls. They have plays going through their minds and they have to be comfortable. I blow my whistle at practice and ask them what's going on in the offense. I want them to read it like a book. Once they're comfortable with each other, they'll be able to adlib and set up a screen or a pick-and-roll. They won't be frazzled," she said.
"I want their confidence level up. That's a big thing. I'm always about simplicity. If you keep it simple, that can be comfortable for them. I truly believe in simplicity and I've been very successful at it."
Volleyball perhaps more than most sports, requires a high degree of focus, staying within your role and communicating with teammates. Erickson called that the most important aspect of the game.
"Communication is No. 1," she said. "You have to know where this person is going to be, where the setter is going to set you up, where is the best place to hit. It's constant communication and it's one of your keys to winning."
Erickson plans on working with Fedell and hopefully getting some athletes to go out for a second or third sport, like volleyball.
"Up until my junior and senior year, I was a three-sport athlete," she said. "It's important for girls and boys to be involved in multiple sports. That way, you don't get burned out. You meet other kids, have fun and try something different. I'm definitely in favor of that."
And though height can be a bonus in volleyball, Erickson said its far from the sole attribute that goes into a good volleyball player.
"You can't teach height to anybody, but girls that know the right place to put the ball, those girls have court awareness. It's great to have height but there's girls that are 5-foot-6 that can jump and be as tall as someone that is six foot," she said. "I need girls that can understand the game and know what's important. It's about court awareness and willingness to put in 100 percent and get where you need to be."
Most of all, Erickson is thankful for the chance to return to her alma matter and coach a sport that she loves.
"I want to thank Esky schools and Mr. Wilson for giving me an opportunity to come back to a place I love and graduated from, and bring that youth and passion," she said. "I'm glad I'm able to give back to a place that was so great to me. It's great to be back and be part of a program that has been great for so many years."
Fedell is also excited and said she feels fortunate to have the opportunity.
"I always knew one day that this opportunity would come. I just didn't know it would be now," she said. "I've gotten a lot of support from family members, kids that have texted me asking about open gyms, and from my family, my husband and my kids. Nancy Osier texted me, my mom is excited.
"I"m grateful everything went through. I'm very blessed."