Iron Mountain Mountaineers want to climb the state’s summit in boys basketball

Iron Mountain’s Charlie Gerhard, left, shoots over Westwood’s Nathan Beckman in their Class C regional tournament semifinal game held at Marquette Senior High School on March 12. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

IRON MOUNTAIN — It was a short moment when Bucky Johnson leaned back in his chair in the relaxed pose of an overworked man on vacation. Hands clasped behind his head, legs stretched and feet crossed.

He eyed the trophies — a Mid-Peninsula Conference championship, district championship and regional championship.

When he reached up to show off what he said was the team’s most prized trophy yet, it wasn’t any of those.

He picked up the first-place trophy from last summer’s Carney Varsity Boys Basketball Camp.

“There’s four trophies up there and I always pull that one out first, because this was from Carney. This doesn’t seem like much, but we talked to the kids about where this is all started,” Johnson said. “They took first place in Division 1 down at the Carney camp. I don’t know how many teams were there. There was a bunch. That trophy was there.

Negaunee's Jakson Sager, below, waits for an opening to take a shot as Iron Mountain's Foster Wonders, top left, and Charlie Gerhard throw up a wall in the first quarter of their game played at Lakeview Memorial Gym in Negaunee on Jan. 29. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“Then they won that one, and that one and that one. There’s only one more you can win and that’s the big one. That’s their goal. I think all those experiences just help tremendously.”

The big one being a state championship. It would be Iron Mountain’s second boys’ title and the first since 1928.

For all the success the young IM team has enjoyed, with consecutive district championships and a regional title and runner-up finish, they haven’t been tested like they will be tonight.

Iron Mountain (23-1) faces an octane lineup in Maple City Glen Lake (22-2) in a Class C state quarterfinal at 6 p.m. EDT in Petoskey.

The Lakers feature a standout cast of big, athletic scorers. Three of their starters are at least 6-foot-4, including Xander Okerlund, Cade Peterson and Reece Hazelton. They each have scored at least 20 points in a game this postseason. But Johnson said he likes how his team matches up.

“We kind of match up as far as height,” the coach said. “They might be a little taller. I think there’s going to be some good matchups. We have to execute our game plan. We have to play really good defensively. We have to rebound the basketball.

“We have to try to impose the style of play that we like to play. We have to be able to make a mid-game adjustment. We’re capable of doing different things defensively and offensively. They have a good shooter in No. 3 (Xander Okerlund). Their post player No. 23 (Cade Peterson) is a good player.”

For all the Lakers’ talent, the Mountaineers boast experienced youth. Three of IM’s starters — sophomore Marcus Johnson and juniors Jaden Vicenzi and Charlie Gerhard — will start their 49th varsity basketball game. And that’s after they played a litany of AAU and summer camp games last season.

Coach Johnson said his son played upwards of 65 games between AAU and summer camp last summer, playing everywhere from Chicago to Grand Rapids to Carney and Marquette.

The other starters also played around the Midwest.

“It’s the experience in AAU of playing against the competition and seeing different styles of players and different styles of plays and just being around basketball and the moves they make. That helps,” Johnson said. “If people don’t believe that playing AAU basketball or travel basketball helps kids who have a passion for the game to get better, that’s not my philosophy. I think you have to do it. They don’t seem fazed to be playing against people.”

It also allows them to vary their game depending on the opponent.

“The Calumet radio guy said ‘I see you’re scoring 65, 67 points a game — do you rely on your offense to win games?’ He said that to me and I was like ‘Uhh, well, we can play some defense,'” Johnson said. “We’ve been trying to force our will on people and we know that Westwood wanted to play a halfcourt game and so did Calumet.”