T here is an inherent toughness associated with the successful Calumet programs. It’s essentially instilled in them. Having to brave long winters with over 300 inches of snow will naturally harden an individual, while numerous athletes at the school come from larger families where scrapping with older siblings can be the norm. Then there’s its location, which can lead to certain Calumet teams playing with a proverbial edge that complements their hard-nosed mentality.
Calumet is the northernmost high school in the UP, located far from the typical basketball hotbed in the central UP. This leads to basketball casuals overlooking the Copper Country — an area more well-known for its storied hockey success than its achievements on the court. This irked Calumet.
Both the Copper Kings and Menominee Maroons entered Monday’s regional final undefeated. But to many outside of Calumet, Menominee was a clear-cut favorite. The Maroons held a No. 1 ranking all season, returned its starting core from a group that went 20-0 during the regular season last year and feature two of the best players in the UP in Emma Anderson and Erin Barrette.
This also irked Calumet.
“Everyone thought we’re the underdogs, and that Menominee might blow us out by 20 points,” Calumet’s Elli Djerf said. “I just used that as motivation to keep working hard.”
It took just 1:04 of Monday’s matchup for it to become readily apparent Calumet was out to make a statement. Alexis Strom scored a layup, then Calumet’s defense forced a rush shot before Djef scored in transition for a quick 4-0 lead. The Copper Kings were dictating the tempo.
“It’s partially them and partially what we coach. We play Calumet basketball,” Calumet coach Matt Laho said after his team’s 57-41 win Monday in Iron River. “When we talk about everything we do, it doesn’t matter if you’re up 20 or down by 20, we play the game the same way.”
This was a similar position Calumet found itself in a year ago. Playing in a regional semifinal against an experienced core that featured two Division II signees. Last season it was Westwood, led by Madelyn Koski and Tessa Leece, who are now currently at Ferris State and Michigan Tech. But Calumet wasn’t quite ready for that stage. The Copper Kings (18-0) were still a bit inexperienced and lacked the confidence necessary to pull off an upset. Calumet made just 10 of 43 shots, including 1 of 16 from 3 in the 51-26 defeat.
“I think last year we went into that game and I think for a lot of our younger players, the game was almost too big for them,” Laho said. “Nerves took over, they weren’t making shots they typically make and they just kind of seemed in their heads the whole time.
“Today, they were laser-focused, came out and knew that they could play with these guys. They played with confidence.”
Calumet started to mentally prepare for the game earlier in the day. With no school due to spring break, the players decided to get together at the gym for a morning shootaround to get shots up. Before the bus was scheduled to depart for West Iron County, the players reconvened for another shooting session.
The first moment Calumet knew it could play with Menominee (13-1) came early in the contest. Anderson caught the ball in the post, and soon after, numerous defenders swarmed her in the lane. Calumet’s ability to limit the inside effectiveness of the top player in the UP served as the first confidence boost that was absent in last year’s regional semifinal.
“The couple times I noticed when Emma Anderson got the ball down low, we were collapsing on her and she struggled to do much down there,” Djerf said. “I knew if we could be good with that and keep a hand in their shooter’s face and collapse on the big girl, we could be fine.”
Calumet’s stifling defense held the Maroons to just 2 of 13 shooting and eight turnovers in the opening eight minutes. The lone scores came off Anderson putbacks with the Maroons not able to generate any rhythm in their halfcourt sets.
Calumet’s defense deservedly receives most of the credit for its success, but its unselfishness and individual talent on the offensive end is what makes this group difficult to defend. Whether it’s executing with a man advantage in transition, backdoor cuts or finding the open shooter, Calumet has a roster of willing passers ready to make the correct basketball play. The Copper Kings assisted on 14 of their 21 made baskets on Monday.
Calumet also has the luxury of numerous shot-creators. Djerf reached the 1,000-point mark for her career this season and can score at all three levels — from 3, mid-range pull-ups or attack the rim — while Marybeth Halonen and Jana Loukus are regular threats to score double digits and lead the team’s offense.
“It just makes it that much easier playing,” Djerf said of the team’s balance. “You never feel too much pressure that you have to score. You can make opportunities for your teammates and you can trust that they will help you win the game.”
On Monday, it was Halonen leading Calumet. She scored 12 of her team-high 19 points in the first half where she made 5 of 10 shots, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range. Halonen swished a 3 from the right wing before Djerf made another from the same spot to cap an 8-0 Calumet run, giving the team a 22-8 advantage.
“We knew that they overplay way out, so I just tried to attack and if the 3 was open, shoot that,” Halonen said.
After beating one juggernaut, the Copper Kings now have to face another: St. Ignace. The Saints were the Division 4 runner-ups in 2019 and have won 13 straight district championships.
“I think the biggest thing is I like our matchups, I like our players,” Laho said. “I like Elli Djerf when we need her. I like Marybeth stepping up. I like Jana’s composure with the ball. I really think with our team, how our girls step up when we need it, that’s hard to replicate.”
This is what happens when you run into a buzzsaw. When you face a team that’s more athletic, quicker and teeming with skill throughout its rotation. It doesn’t help if you have an off night, but sometimes the buzzsaw of a team can be so good you have to come to grips with reality and wonder if it may have...