B asketball, like most things in life, is constantly changing. Every season coaches and teams try to adapt to the latest and greatest — be it over-hyped trends or tried and true methods that are making their way into the mainstream. Basketball is in an eternal state of evolution.
But for almost 20 years the St. Ignace Saints have been stuck in a rut. And it’s entirely by choice.
Because as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
After over 400 wins, five state titles and three more second-place finishes, it’s pretty clear that things ain’t broke. In fact, they are in near perfect condition.
“The game might be changing, but we try not to change too much,” head coach Dorene Ingalls said. “There are some years where we can’t do our traditional press, but what is exciting about this year is that we are going to get back to that a little bit more. Like the first four years. We try not to change too much. We still expect the same things every year.”
Maintaining a long-term standard of excellence in high school basketball is nearly impossible. High school coaches don’t get to choose their personnel; they take what they are given and make do. So, essentially, a program that’s been dismal can end up good for a few years if a talented crop of kids comes through, and a more renowned program can fall off when the talent dries up.
But for 20 years St. Ignace has beaten the odds and done something remarkable. “How?” Is a difficult question to unpack, but it starts with a coach, a press and an unprecedented level of commitment.
Ingalls has been coaching for almost 20 years, but she started building the program even before that. She first coached junior high and JV before stepping up to the varsity. Ingalls coached the same group of girls, following them from level to level.
And once they got to high school and Ingalls took over the varsity, there was no slow burn, no growing pains, no getting used to the system.
Instead, the Saints won back-to-back state championships (1999, 2000) and set the tone for what would become the UP’s most elite program.
Anyone outside of the area might have been surprised by the instant success of the new coach and new system, but those involved knew just how long the Saints had been brewing.
When Ingalls started working with the elementary program, she knew she had a special group of little athletes, but she needed something to bring them all together, so with the help of her father-in-law Jack and her husband Doug, Ingalls implemented the press that the Saints still use today.
“You have to start from the bottom up, and if you have a good foundation with your elementary program, and you get them bought into a certain system early,” she said. “And then we have 1000 managers hanging around all the time, watching the games.”
When Dorene took over the varsity program in 1999, Doug became the basketball guru for the JV and junior high programs. Doug possesses an innate attention to detail that helps him prepare the younger players for the varsity level.
You often hear about elementary programs leading to success down the line, but St. Ignace takes that to the extreme.
Those managers that can be seen following the players around are part of the Junior Saints program, where each Saturday the varsity girls coach the youngsters. Then, during halftime of the boys varsity games, the Junior Saints get to show off their skills in a game of their own.
While the Junior Saints learn fundamentals, effort and a love for the game, the varsity players get to see basketball from a different perspective, improving themselves in the process.
“You learn a lot of basketball when you are a coach,” Ingalls said. “They learn how to communicate a little bit more, how important it is to be encouraging to their team, and encourage them to play hard. When you coach someone you start to learn the game from a different angle. It is vital for them because when you have to explain how to play defense you learn how to play it that much better.”
Some of those girls will end up playing for St. Ignace at some point, continuing the tradition. And by then they will know what is expected of a Saint, how to play and how to win.
Winning, however, is something this year’s team wants to do a little bit more of.
Before they got to the varsity level, St. Ignace had gone to six-straight final fours. But this team has lost in the quarterfinals three years in a row, and by St. Ignace standards, three years without a final four appearance is a long drought.
“This group of girls, none of them have been down to the final four before. They’ve been there as managers, but haven’t been there in uniform.” Ingalls said. “Our two seniors have one last shot at it, so hopefully they can get over the hump.”
Ingalls has seen her share of excellent players and teams over the years — she coached Krista Clement and Nicole Elmblad, who both played at Michigan, and Kelley Wright, who played at Youngstown State. And remember those five state titles? Ingalls knows basketball, and she knows that this year’s team can play. What’s more, the Saints are poised to get back to the semifinals that have eluded them for three years.
The Saints have won their first three games this season by an average of 50 points, and have eight players in their rotation — depth that can be hard to find at this level.
Led by the athletic, 6-foot Emily Coveyou, who averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game last season, plus eight girls who Ingalls said can start any night, is a pretty good recipe for success.
And again, you don’t have to take anyone else’s word for it. Ingalls has a track record that more than proves she knows what’s up.
Ingalls has been at St. Ignace for so long, that she and the basketball program are so intertwined, they are almost one entity. You can’t have one without the other. And though the Saints play the same way they did in 1999, Ingalls has changed, at least a little bit.
“When my players come back for Christmas time and they come back to our practices, they say I have definitely gotten a lot more lenient,” she said laughing.
“Back in my early days I was a little more aggressive. I’ve calmed down a little bit, but I still expect the best out of them. I didn’t realize how much I had changed until these girls come back and say ‘Oh my gosh, we had to run for every miss.’ ”
Every team that plays for Ingalls is the same, but every team is different too — not in the way they play, but in the way Ingalls treats them.
“You have to adjust to every team you have, depending on the experience,” she said. “Sometimes you have to go back to the basics and understand that if their effort is there that is all that matters. You can’t be too demanding. No one wants to see Bobby Knight out there.”
For Ingalls, every player has a place on the floor. Not everyone has to be a Division I basketball player, or Division II, or even junior college. All they have to be is a person that comes out to play and play hard. Even if they only play a few minutes.
“We push the tempo on both ends of the floor and find spots for everyone in order to have depth,” she said. “Maybe a kid can’t hit a 3, or can’t handle the ball, but we need those little ankle biters who hustle on defense. We will always get them into the game.
“Minimal minutes doesn’t mean minimal impact. Everyone has to understand how important their role is.”
And if players don’t believe her, Ingalls has 20 years of memories to draw upon. And somehow, she remembers all of them.
And some moments, she will never forget.
In her second year of coaching, when Saint Ignace won its second-straight state title, Ingalls had another deep team and six girls were capable of starting. So, she started them all, rotating two of her guards every other game.
One hadn’t been able to play the year before due to a knee injury, but when the championship game came around it wasn’t her turn to start.
“One player was supposed to start and had started the year before, but she came up to me and said, ‘Coach, she wasn’t able to start last year and wasn’t able to play last year, I would like to give up my starting spot to her,’ ” Ingalls said. “I get teary-eyed thinking about it. The depth of their heart and love.”
Somewhere along the line, from elementary to varsity, the Saints learn to give themselves up to the program. And no matter how many coaching clinics a person attends, or offensive schemes they come up with, there is no blueprint or step-by-step guide for how to get that kind of dedication.
Maybe that is what makes St. Ignace so special.