Ironwood moving to Copper Mountain Conference

3/19/2021 | Feature | By Jason Juno (Daily Globe)

I ronwood will make the switch from the Indianhead Conference to the Copper Mountain Conference next season.

Ironwood learned this weekend that the conference officially approved them joining and the school board supported the move Monday night, athletic director Dan Martinson said.

The Red Devils were the only Michigan team in the Wisconsin conference and they had to follow Wisconsin rules. The Copper Mountain Conference includes all of the small schools in Gogebic, Ontonagon, Baraga and Houghton counties plus Republic-Michigamme.

Ironwood has been exploring the move for a couple of years in part to have more consistent games for the JV teams, especially in girls basketball. Athletic director Dan Martinson was happy it was approved after what they went through this year during the virus trying to match the wildly different times Michigan and Wisconsin schools were allowed to play.

“It took a pandemic for two different states to not agree with things for us to get the final push to get into a Michigan conference,” Ironwood boys basketball coach Adam Mackey said.

As difficult as making a schedule was this year, it will help scheduling going forward in years without a virus.

“Scheduling of course it’s going to make it a little bit easier,” Mackey said. “But also understanding that we have 20 games, Wisconsin has 24; we’re still playing quarters, Wisconsin’s playing halves; all those little minor changes that sometimes can go a long ways.”

It even affected Ironwood’s chances at a top-two seed in the district, which is determined by a computer formula on games against Michigan teams. The MHSAA made an exemption for Ironwood, but it still limits them.

“We were getting half credit for wins against Wisconsin teams,” Mackey said.

Ironwood left the West-PAC, made up of the big schools in Copper Country, for the Indianhead in the 2010-11 school year. The boys basketball team quickly became a contender in the conference, playing in big games against Hurley and Washburn over the years.

Mackey starred for Ironwood during its first four years in the conference, leading the Red Devils to conference titles in 2013 and 2014. Ironwood made it three straight with another championship in 2015.

“Night in and night out it was tough, those four years I was playing in it,” Mackey said. “There were good teams and we had some great games against tough teams. A lot of them were important games, playing for first or second place in the conference.”

The Copper Mountain figures to be very competitive as well. Three of the top-five boys teams in the U.P. are from the league (No. 1 Ewen-Trout Creek, No. 3 Dollar Bay and No. 5 Chassell). A fourth would be, Jeffers, but they moved up to Division 3. In the girls poll, there are also three from the league, No. 2 E-TC, No. 3 Baraga and No. 5 Ontonagon.

“I think there’s more quality opponents in the Copper Mountain because there’s more teams,” Mackey said. “You talk about E-TC, Jeffers, Dollar Bay, they’re the top teams in there, but even the other teams, Chassell’s good, Bessemer, Wakefield they’re tough teams, they’re tough programs.”

The Copper Mountain formed when the Copper Country Conference and Porcupine Mountain Conference merged a few years ago. 

The conference now includes Ironwood, Bessemer, Wakefield-Marenisco, Watersmeet, Ewen-Trout Creek, Ontonagon, Baraga, L’Anse, Dollar Bay, Chassell, Jeffers, Lake Linden-Hubbell and Republic-Michigamme.

Ironwood may only have a few non-conference games available, but Mackey already talked to Martinson and was assured Hurley would be one of them.

“Everyone wants that, the kids want that, the Hurley-Ironwood game, at least one time a year,” Mackey said.

The change in conference for Ironwood doesn’t include skiing, football (a U.P.-wide 8-player league), soccer (the Northern Lights) or  tennis (independent).

The Copper Mountain does have volleyball and cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball, softball and track-and-field in the spring.

“That’s part of the reason some of the schools in the Copper Mountain wanted us in because we do offer baseball and softball,” Mackey, also the baseball coach, said. “They’re trying to grow that in the conference as well.”

Being in a Wisconsin conference during the pandemic hasn’t been easy.

In the fall, Michigan volleyball started on time. In Wisconsin, the first game wasn’t until Oct. 1, so Ironwood had to wait to start its season even as other Michigan teams played. In the winter, Wisconsin teams began basketball on time as Michigan sports weren’t allowed to start games until February. Only four Indianhead teams played Ironwood, both South Shore squads, the Hurley boys and the Mercer girls. 

“It was just a mad scramble for me trying to get games here,” Martinson said. “So that was a big part of it at least in my book.”

The boys will have 15 regular season games out of a possible 18, but just five of them were at home. The girls only got to play 12 games overall.

Martinson likes that the new conference is in Michigan.

“We play halves all season, then we get to the playoffs we’re down to quarters; and the different rules and styles and everything else,” Martinson said.

It’ll allow Ironwood to see the teams they’ll be playing in the postseason as the Ironwood boys will join the girls in Division 4, Martinson said. (It may be a temporary stay though as Ironwood’s student count is expected to rise).  

The schedules won’t match up this spring either. Michigan schools can start spring practice Monday, but Ironwood won’t because they have to wait for Wisconsin to hold spring football and volleyball and start its spring seasons later. 

The Michigan postseason won’t wait, though. And the Indianhead wasn’t happy that Ironwood needed the conference track meets be held in May before the U.P. Finals, while Wisconsin still has several weeks before its state meet, Martinson said.

“Things don’t just match up right now,” Martinson said. “Hopefully it’s back to normal next year, but if I can get everything I have sports wise by jumping over to the Copper Mountain, in the long run I think that’s going to be a safer bet.”

There were scheduling conflicts even before the pandemic. The conference cross country meet has been held two days before the U.P. Finals, for instance.


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