Tools to improve: Even after district tournament title, Negaunee girls strive for bigger things

Negaunee’s Ielee Shiroda, right, takes a shot beneath the basket against Manistique on Jan. 6 at Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium in Negaunee. (Journal file photo)

Negaunee girls

2017-18 schedule

All times Eastern

Nov. 28 – at Gladstone, 7:20 p.m.

Dec. 1 — Manistique, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 5 — at Escanaba, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 8 — Houghton, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 12 — Marquette, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 20 — Ishpeming, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 29 — at Menominee, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 2 — Iron Mountain, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 5 — at Manistique, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 11 — Gwinn, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 16 — Sault Ste. Marie, 7 p.m.

Jan. 19 — at Westwood, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 22 — at Ishpeming, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 24 — Escanaba, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 30 — Gladstone, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 6 — at Calumet, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 8 – at Iron Mountain, 7:45 p.m.

Feb. 13 — at Gwinn, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 16 — Westwood, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 20 — at Marquette, 7:15 p.m.

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“We like to fly under the radar but that may not be the case this year.” — Brandon Sager, head coach, Negaunee girls basketball

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NEGAUNEE — The Negaunee girls basketball team achieved a great amount of success last season, including a Class C district tournament title and a season sweep of rival Marquette.

Miners head coach Brandon Sager hopes to continue that success this season with several key players returning and a newcomer who has high expectations placed upon her shoulders.

Negaunee finished with a 17-7 record last season, falling in the regional semifinals to Calumet 60-49.

Sager said the first few weeks of practice this month have been a slow but steady progression to prepare the team for its first game Tuesday night at new Mid-Peninsula Conference member Gladstone.

“It’s been pretty good, but not exactly where I would like them to be at this point,” he said. “But the girls are working hard and things are starting to come together.”

The Miners lost four seniors to graduation, three of them starters last season. The most notable is shooting guard Aleda Johnson, who was a Class C all-state honorable mention player last season and 1,000-point scorer. The other three gone are Sam Carlson, Hailey Fezatt and Madysen Kontio.

Negaunee already has a good replacement to move into a starting role — senior point guard Natalie Bartle has been the talk of the Upper Peninsula basketball circles.

The Negaunee native moved away to Tucson, Arizona, before high school and played three years of varsity hoops there before returning to Negaunee this year. Bartle received looks from Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech universities before settling on a commitment to another NCAA Division II school, Colorado Mesa.

Sager talked about Bartle’s knowledge of the game and how she fits in perfectly with the rest of the team.

“They call her a basketball junkie and she lives and breathes the game,” Sager said. “She’s almost a couple of steps ahead of everybody defensively (and) offensively; she just knows the game and her IQ is so high. She’s really jelled and fit with us.”

Asked if there was a special adjustment with a new quality player, Sager said there wasn’t.

“As a coach you’re always concerned with a player of that caliber entering your program,” he said. “Is it going to be a problem? Are the girls going to feel that they’ve kind of taken ownership? But there’s been no animosity whatsoever. I tell the girls the more attention she brings, the less you have and it opens up a lot more opportunities.”

The Miners will work with seven seniors, five juniors and a sophomore this season.

Top returners include senior point guard and Aleda Johnson’s younger sister Clara Johnson, junior power forward Abby Nelson, senior power forward Ielee Shiroda and senior center Ally Jacobson.

Sager also mentioned sophomore point guard Chloe Norman and junior shooting guard MacKenzie Karki, both of whom progressed and stepped in last year after Aleda Johnson went down with an injury.

Sager also talked about some newcomers who will add depth.

“We’ve got some juniors coming up that I think are going to give us some valuable minutes,” he said. “We can … almost go 10 deep with the roster that we have. I think we’re going to try to get a lot of people a lot of playing time.”

After other area coaches said Negaunee will be a challenge and possibly the team to beat in the M-PC, Sager said being in that position is a bit strange.

“It’s a little bit different than we’re used to, because I think everyone kind of underestimates us a lot,” he said. “We like to fly under the radar but that may not be the case this year. The expectations that others have for us are the same that we have for ourselves.”

Asked who the biggest threat in the M-PC is, Sager couldn’t name just one.

“All the Marquette County teams are very strong,” he said. “Ishpeming returns four solid players, Gwinn returns a lot of experience and Westwood brings a lot of girls back. Those three teams are going to compete night in and night out with us. I think it’s up in the air to see who can win this, but we’re going to be prepared every night. We have a lot of girls that come and compete and I think our depth is really going to help us.”

Whether or not the Miners can make a deep playoff run this season may be dependent on that.

“We bring back a lot of players that kind of have a sour taste in our mouths from that regional game,” Sager said. “It really fueled their offseason work and they’re definitely going to strive to beat last year’s ending and hopefully get over the (Mackinac B)ridge.”

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.