T he Chassell Panthers have one thing on the mind these days: a district championship.
With a roster mostly made up of returning players from last year’s 12-8 team and a few potential contributors coming up from the junior varsity team, the question asked was a simple one: Why not?
With many teams in the conference graduating talented players, the Panthers hope to take advantage and win their first district title since 2002. It would be a long time coming for Chassell, as the Panthers have run into perhaps two of the best teams in the Copper Country in the last five years. Lake Linden-Hubbell in 2015 and 2016, and Dollar Bay in 2018. Those seasons saw the Panthers field competitive teams, but they were just on the wrong side of some good competition. With the teams that gave Chassell issues last year losing a substantial amount of talent to graduation, there is a feeling of optimism surrounding this season’s team.
Leading the way for this year’s squad is first-time varsity head coach Rafael Soumis. Soumis, a 1978 Chassell High graduate, brings a different perspective to this team. Not only does he know what it is like to play for a historic program like Chassell, but he has coached this group of kids since they were in elementary school. He has coached everywhere in Chassell from elementary school to junior varsity and has a relationship with his players that few coaches have the luxury of having.
“I’m excited,” Soumis said. “Experience is always helpful. We are adding two kids from what we had leftover last year, and three kids coming up that are going to help us out.”
Knowing these kids for so long can only be a good thing for a first-time head coach, as there was no mistaking what Soumis has come here to accomplish.
“We will be competitive, for sure.” he said. “I told my kids that we will play each game one at a time, no looking ahead. I want to improve throughout the season, and hopefully we will be ready by the end of the season.”
Experience, as Soumis alluded to, is key. No one in the UP has more experience than his point guard and team captain, Abe Gockenbach. Gockenbach has taken advantage of playing small school basketball. High schools in Michigan allow institutions with an enrollment under 100 students to bring up eighth-graders to play on the high school teams, which allowed Gockenbach to play on the varsity during his eighth-grade season. Gockenbach has seen firsthand what it is like to come up short in the district tournament, and he is eager to get to the top in his final year wearing blue and gold.
“I want to win the districts. It’s about time.” Gockenbach said. “I’m pretty confident that we are going to be the best team, but if we don’t play good, and we hurt ourselves, that’s how we’re going to lose.”
Gockenbach has taken a sharing approach throughout his career, not being known for filling up the stat sheet with scoring, but rather, with assists. Being the senior captain, he recognizes that it is his time to step up as a capable scorer.
The All-UP Class D Second Team selection averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and had a UP-high 5 steals per game last season.
“I think I’m going to try to score a lot this year,” he said. “The past four years, I didn’t shoot a lot. I try to pass, and my job is still to pass, but I think I need to show more. I didn’t help us last year in districts because I don’t score that much, but this year I want to change that around.”
That is the confidence you would expect from a fifth-year varsity player. An increase in scoring would help fill the void left by the loss of all-conference guard Aaron Barnes, along with Grant Hokenson, who were key contributors on last year’s team.
Soumis, however, is not concerned with Gockenbach and his scoring.
“I think that the best offense is a great defense,” he said. “We are going to work hard defensively, and that will provide us with all of the offense we need.”
With a plethora of athletes, like senior Blade Warren and newcomer Kurtis Kytta, the Panthers have the ability to defend the length of the floor, something they have been known to do under former head coach Bill Sleeman. With Elijah Soumis and Nicklas Olson holding down the interior, Soumis believes they have the size to compete with most big men in the area. Time will tell if all of the pieces eventually fall into place, but Soumis emphasized the mentality of staying in the present.
“I told my players we are just going to play each game one at a time, one at a time,” he said. “I don’t want them to look ahead, and I don’t want to look ahead myself.”