It wasn't all that long ago that sports at North Central were an apathetic topic. The football team had gone years without a postseason apearance, the boys and girls basketball teams were mired in mediocrity, track and cross country were nothing to get excited about.
Now, impressively, every aspect of the school's athletic body is reaching new heights, the sports seemingly building off one another.
The football team recently compiled its fourth seven-win regular season in school history, hosted a playoff game for the first time and collected the school's first postseason victory. The girls basketball team last season upset Bark River-Harris in the district final, ending a years long title drought, then went on to upend a 22-0 Superior Central team in the regional semifinal before bowing to Forest Park in the regional final. The boys basketball team compiled their best season since 1984, reaching the Class D Final Four with a team that had no seniors. The Cross Country team won the school's first U.P. title in early October. The volleyball team recently completed the best regular season in program history.
And the prospects for the current season look bright as well. The Jets boys return their starting five from last season, nearly their entire bench and add promising freshman Jason Whitens to the mix. The girls team brings back the Wells sisters, Baylee and Morgan and guard Kennedy Faccio among others. The Jets are ready to take off.
The Rapid River Rockets are playing in their second state title game in three seasons, Friday night. I remember the 2011 title game pretty clearly still where a team that was still getting used to playing the 8-Man game was pretty well schooled by a machine-like Carsonville-Port Sanilac team. This year, I believe an undfeated Rapid River team has the edge against an undefeated Peck team. There is a hunger on this team from senior center Hayden Hardwick to senior quarteback Jake Pearson to defensive leaders George Kanyuh, Steve Johnson and Pat Pryal among others, and a sense of urgency to get it done this year, because the Rockets' recent run of success may not last.
The recent decision to move the title game to Greenville may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some in the Rapid River community, but the Rockets and their fanbase can take solace in the fact that Peck, which hails from the southeast thumb region, will have to travel as well, about four hours.
One of my favorite teams to watch last year was the Escanaba Eskymos hockey team. The line of Nick Vandermissen-Jake Eastin-Levi Wunder was virtually unstoppable, the large group of freshmen performed beyond their years and a program long mired in mediocrity had the best season in school history. Every time Wunder touched the puck you knew something amazing was about to happen. Even with all of the mercy-rule victories, the 3-0 mark at the Michigan Public School Showcase and the 3-0 mark against the Marquette Redmen last season, I felt the Eskymos played one of their best games against Saginaw Heritage in the regional final in Gaylord, a 2-1 loss. The team peppered the Heritage goaltender with over 40 shots, many of them quality scoring chances and were simply beaten by a red-hot netminder and a fluke goal late in the third period.
Vandermissen and Eastin are gone now and the team will need to create chemistry with new playmakers, but until then, an experienced defense and senior netminder in Nick LeMire should keep the team afloat. Houghton and Hancock being added to the Great Lakes Conference makes for a tougher schedule, and the Eskymos only have seven home games this season, but all things considered, the team could break the 20-win plateau again. Expect the Eskymos to be competitive under first-year coach Matt Hughes in the postseason as well, as the Eskymos aim to reach the Final Four that eluded them a year ago.