PETOSKEY, Mich. - Before this season started, the Escanaba Eskymos boys basketball team laid out three goals for their team. Have a winning record, beat their rivals and win their district.
Mission accomplished. The Eskymos won their first district title since 2009 with a thrilling 48-46 victory at Menominee, Friday night. Now going into tonight's regional semifinal against Cadillac at Petoskey, head coach Tracy Hudson says its all gravy from here, though the determination to keep going is as high as ever.
"The kids understand we have an opportunity," said Hudson. "Going into the regional, we want them to have fun and give 100 percent."
For the Eskymos to even get to this point, they had to accomplish quite the task. During the regular season, Escanaba had beaten every team in its district twice. The third time, was certainly the toughest. Esky went 3-0 against Gladstone and Menominee en route to the district title.
"I'm very proud of the kids. It's very hard to beat a team three times. North Central had to be nervous about Carney-Nadeau," said Hudson. "This is the first time we've ever beat Menominee three times in a year, but if we wanted to win the district, we had to do it."
In Cadillac (16-6), the Eskymos (17-5) face a team with a contrasting style, and one that's been here before - the Vikings have won four straight district titles.
The Vikings play at a deliberate tempo and utilize half court sets. They feature two bigs in 6-5 senior Justin Liptak and 6-4 senior Jalen Brooks.
"We have to play faster against Cadillac than we did against Menominee. They're not as big as Menominee, but they're stronger," said Hudson. "Brooks was their quarterback and moves around on the outside, sort of like Brandon (Robinette). He goes in and out. Liptak is more of an on the block type of player, heavier set.
The run and gun style of the Eskymos with their array of shooters such as Brandon Robinette, Sam Molnar and Jamie Hiltunen, and also Tyler Skufca off the bench, could give Escanaba an advantage if it can control the tempo.
"I think we match up really well with them. It's two contrasting styles. One thing Cadillac does is they play good man defense and they're very well coached. They play a half-court motion and defensively they don't extend pressure much. "
Hudson says he has a couple game videos of Cadillac and scouted the team earlier this year.
"I saw them play against Alpena in person," he said. "I had a hunch they could be a team we'd meet. I feel good about our chances if we play our style. If it gets too slow and they can pound it on the block, we'll have issues."
On the other side of the bracket, Mason County Central (18-4) will take on Newaygo (17-5) in tonight's second game at 7:30 p.m. The Eskymos will tip off at 6 p.m.
Mason County Central defeated Ludington 58-40 Friday night in its district championship while Newaygo punched its ticket with a 52-50 victory over Fremont.
Cadillac reached the regional with a 52-47 overtime victory over West Branch Ogemaw Heights (6-13). Point guard Junior Emmington led the Vikings with 15 points, with Liptak and Brooks scoring 12 and 10 respectively.
But Hudson says he feels adequately prepared for the regional, having played a tough schedule as well as seeing a variety of styles during summer tournaments at the University of Detroit.
"Playing Marquette and Negaunee twice, Gwinn, we're prepared, "Hudson said. "I got a text from one of the UofD coaches, congratulating us on our district win. Going down to their camps really made a difference for us. We've seen it all."
Hudson said the team practiced Sunday night and will attend Monday classes for the first two hours before heading down to Petoskey. On the way, they will stop at St. Ignace for a shootaround.
No matter what happens, Hudson said he appreciates the district title, and the opportunity to keep playing.
"I look at Alpena, Marquette, L'Anse, Houghton, great teams that didn't win a district," he said. "A championship is special, and I've never been a coach where everything rests on the district. You're with a team for four months, it's more than one week of basketball.
"The kids are excited, we have a fan bus going down, the kids are in school for two hours and then we take off. It's kind of exciting."