ESCANABA — A common through-line of the COVID-19 pandemic has been limiting contact between people who aren’t of the same household. This restriction has wreaked havoc on team sports, and for weeks, Michigan received mixed signals as to whether the winter sports season would actually be able to proceed.
“It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that I was standing at the capitol fighting for a season,” Esky boys coach Tracy Hudson said. “I knew that these kids deserved it, and they could be a special group.”
Eventually, with restrictions in place, high school teams began their condensed season, and it would be difficult to tell looking at the success of both sides of the Escanaba basketball program that each had to navigate these significant issues.
“It was a tough season with the late start,” Esky girls coach Mike Beveridge said. “The girls were anxious. Then, we had to postpone (the start of the season and) postpone it (again), but once we got into practice and got going and adapted to the COVID (restrictions), it was fine. The girls needed it. It was a much-needed outlet for the girls and boys to just get them doing something physical and getting back to some normality.”
In fact, the boys and girls both propelled themselves into historical seasons thanks to their regional championships, with the girls achieving something never before seen in the program and the boys returning to a place they hadn’t visited in 61 years.
“I think what it showed, most of all, to both our teams and the people following them that it can happen, and you have to believe,” Escanaba athletic director Tony Perino said. “That’s why you go through summer camp, and why we put all the preparation and practices in. That’s why you shoot around before or after practice or at the YMCA.”
Both Eskymos teams advanced through the tournament in lock-step, making it to the quarterfinals before being knocked out, the girls by eventual state champ Portland (47-41) and the boys by Bridgeport (52-41).
“We struggled in shooting in our final game,” Hudson said. “(If we played that game again), I think we’d win 50% of the time. We were pretty evenly matched, and we were prepared. We just didn’t shoot well that night, and we had a couple careless turnovers. But, I think we showed we belonged.”
Beveridge also complimented the effort that his team put in on their side of the run.
“Our starters … peaked at the right time,” he said. “The girls played their hardest every night. Having a depleted bench really put more strain and stress on my five starters. The girls on the bench were underclassmen, they were JV girls, and that put a lot of strain and stress on them. They didn’t get playing time, and they hadn’t played at the varsity level all season until the tournament. There was some stress involved and a little pressure for all the girls, but I thought they all handled it very well and played their hardest when they were on the floor.”One benefit of having both teams proceeding through the postseason at the same time, and on an alternating day-by-day basis, was the opportunity for the teams to support each other on their trips downstate.
“The greatest thing, I thought, was the (support),” Perino said. “(The boys) wanted to head down a day earlier to support the girls, and I said, ‘Absolutely! I’ll pay for it out of my pocket if I have to.’ You have to treat that situation like it’s going to happen once in your high school career. Then, of course, the girls went to watch the boys’ game as well. All in all, it was just a great experience. It was a great week for both sides.”
Hudson also recalled the giddiness with which the teams took to supporting each other.
“You know, you’re at a hotel in Mount Pleasant, and it’s, ‘Hey, we’re going to the girls’ game tonight. Oh, they’re coming to our game tomorrow,'” he said. “It was just a dream come true for Escanaba.”
To go along with the historic distance the teams went, they also received no small amount of accolades.
On the girls’ side, future Grand Valley State cager and senior Nicole Kamin was awarded Ms. U.P. basketball, Division 1-3 Player of the Year and a dream team berth in the girls’ basketball All-U.P. awards. Additionally, she scooped up a place on the Michigan Division 2 All-State First Team.
“I wasn’t surprised in the least that Nicole got what she got,” Beveridge said. “To be able to coach her for four years and have that type of player come through the Esky program was a treat. It really was something special, and I was just fortunate enough to be the coach. She’s just an amazing kid, amazing player, student and all-around person. It’s well-deserved for Nicole, and I know she isn’t a selfish young lady. She complemented her teammates, and I thought our other four starters did a super job this year, Maddy (Monkevich), Mari (Bink), Bailey (Barron) and Carney (Salo).”
Bink and Salo each earned an honorable mention, but Beveridge himself was honored with Division 1-3 Coach of the Year on the All-U.P. list.
“It was a big surprise that I got what I got,” Beveridge commented, chuckling.
For the boys, Erik Victorson — a new transfer this year — earned a Division 1-3 Dream Team spot on the boys’ All-U.P. list, Carter Hudson made first team and Colin Hudson landed on second team. Brandon Frazier earned himself an honorable mention, but one of the more exciting awards for coach Hudson was locking down the Division 1-2 Team of the Year.
“The strength of our team was that, if you looked at our team, we had different guys step up on different nights, and you could not just come in and say, ‘We’re going to stop Erik, or we’re going to stop Colin.’ Well, then Carter and Brandon would go off, or Connor (Smale) would go off with Trevor (Brown) or Jared (Hanson).”
Another strength, Hudson believes was a well-made schedule and the flexibility to go along with it. Perino was happy to help, but that doesn’t mean it was easy — especially current year.
“I think I can summarize it in a sentence by saying I think I lost 10 years of my life scheduling this year,” he joked. “Everyone thinks just schedule it, but there’s a lot of pieces to it. Officials are needed, and all these schools are vying for the same days. There’s a lot of jockeying for position and to try to get officials. It was quite an ordeal.”
Something that can’t be underestimated is the reverberations the postseason runs created throughout the community and, thanks to the recently installed cameras in the gym — funded by the Eskymos Fan Club — and proliferation of the NFHS Network, through community members that aren’t so local.
“The amount of people from the time we left the high school to the time we even got through Rapid River, people honk(ing) and were waving signs,” Perino said. “There were people everywhere honking, waving signs and just stopped. It really showed, especially at a time like this with everything going on, … we have a really good, strong and athletically rooted community. Bottom line is that we have a lot of great support from everyone, and I’m still getting calls from people (now outside of the area that went to Escanaba). You can’t thank the community and everyone that’s helped — and the parents especially — enough.”
Hudson also felt a sense of community in the expanded reach this season.
“Our community is (amazing),” he said. “I don’t know how many people said, ‘We were down in Florida, and we were watching your games. We were rooting for you!’ So, during kind of a low point with everything that our communities have went through as far as COVID and closures and things like that, it was a real picker-upper for our community to be able to follow our girls and basketball teams.
“(Other coaches and programs), they rally behind you when you end up being the team that goes downstate, and we felt that from a lot of the area coaches.”
The three wrapped up their thoughts focusing on the experience that the coaches and players will be able to look back on.
“I think we just appreciated every minute that we were together,” coach Hudson said. “It was so special practicing to go downstate to play in a quarterfinal, just that excitement for the girls and the boys traveling together. Yeah, I’ll never forget it. I think it’s really lifted out school and lifted our community having some of this success, and it’s made us really proud of being an Eskymo.”
Perino felt the runs were positive notes during a time of ups and downs.
“Definitely in the last 15 or 16 months of COVID and the issues there, and all the stop and go, I think it was definitely a bright ray of sunshine on the basketball program and the high school as well,” Perino said. “I can’t be more proud and happier for everyone on both sides. They (players) handled themselves very well this year, and I couldn’t ask for a better group of young men and women.”
Beveridge finished his thought with, “It was a fun ride, and we enjoyed it totally. It was just an awesome experience, and it’s one I’ll never forget.”