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Changing to a familiar face: Mike O’Donnell returns to coach Negaunee Miners, just that it’s girls basketball this time

Negaunee’s Chloe Norman, top, blocks the way of Westwood’s Madi Koski as she tries to drive to the basket during their MHSAA Division 3 district tournament game played at the Patriots’ gym on March 4. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

Negaunee girls

2019-20 schedule

All times Eastern

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Dec. 3 — Manistique, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 6 — at Gladstone, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 10 — at Escanaba, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 13 — Houghton, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 17 — Marquette, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 20 — at Hancock, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 2 — Calumet, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 7 — Ishpeming, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 10 — at Manistique, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 14 — West Iron County, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 21 — Gwinn, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 24 — at Westwood, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 27 — at Ishpeming, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 31 — Iron Mountain, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 4 — Gladstone, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 11 — at Calumet, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 13 — at Iron Mountain, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 18 — at Gwinn, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 21 — Westwood, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 25 — at Marquette, 7:15 p.m.

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NEGAUNEE — The Negaunee varsity girls basketball team will enter this season under the leadership of a man all too familiar with his surroundings inside the walls of Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium.

Mike O’Donnell returns to his former stomping grounds, this time taking the reins of the Miners girls, who are coming off of another successful year, a fourth straight winning season at 16-5.

O’Donnell succeeds Brandon Sager, who spent seven seasons at the helm, acquiring over 100 wins and two district titles. Sager stepped down in August to take an assistant coaching position with the Northern Michigan University women’s basketball program.

O’Donnell, an NHS alumnus, was a multi-sport, all-conference, all-Upper Peninsula athlete for the Miners before graduating in 1999. After playing four years at Finlandia University, O’Donnell returned to his alma mater to coach the Miners boys for nine seasons from 2005-14, compiling a 180-48 record and leading the team to six Mid-Peninsula Conference titles, eight district tournament titles, six regional tournament titles and three trips to the MHSAA Class C state semifinals.

After the 2013-14 season, O’Donnell returned to Finlandia as head coach of the men’s program, a position he held for five seasons before resigning in August to return to Negaunee.

O’Donnell clearly knows a thing or two about success, especially with the Miners. As his tenure begins, the first few months have been simply about getting to know his players.

“I’ve just been trying to get to know all of the girls,” he said. “It’s about getting them in the gym and seeing what their strengths and weaknesses are. With the way the rules are, we could only have four in the gym at a time, so we couldn’t get them up and down the floor and watch them scrimmage. We sort of just had to piece it together.

“Now with the season approaching, I think I’m starting to get a good feel for the team. Talking with Coach Sager, he’s told me about past strengths and weaknesses with the team. I’ve got a good feeling with what we have and I’m excited to move forward and get going.”

O’Donnell added that the girls have responded well so far, and that it’s not all that different from when he coached the boys.

“I haven’t really noticed much of a difference,” he said. “The girls have been really receptive with everything I’ve thrown at them. It hasn’t veered too much from what I threw at my college guys.

“They’ve responded really well. They’re very in-tune and aware of what’s going on. They pick things up very fast. Up to this point, there’s no major difference and they’ve been able to handle everything I’ve thrown at them.”

The Miners will be a younger squad after losing six players to graduation, three of whom received all-conference or all-U.P. recognition.

Negaunee will look to replace Abby Nelson and MacKenzie Karki, both of whom were named to the U.P. Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association’s Division 1-3 Second Team. Each also received various conference honors from the West PAC and Mid-Peninsula conferences, while Hannah Voskuhl was named to the West PAC Second Team and was an M-PC honorable mention.

“We have a lot of turnover losing six seniors and all big scorers,” O’Donnell said. “In that regard, it’s going to be tough. We’ve also had a couple of injuries and other things. (Junior) Emilia Palomaki tore her knee up in August and will be out for us this year, while (senior) Emily Paupore will be concentrating on her cross country career, so she’ll be taking a step back. That gives us big shoes to fill for those two.”

O’Donnell will look to senior leadership from Chloe Norman, while also expecting contributions from sophomore Alyssa Hill, who excelled from inside the paint as a freshman last season. Hill was also an M-PC honorable mention.

“We’ve got Chloe back and she’s one of two seniors on the team right now,” the coach said. “We can learn a lot from her leadership. She’s a gifted athlete all around the board. Everything she does, she makes it look effortless. Her athleticism alone is fun to watch.

“Alyssa will be a key for us inside as a sophomore. She’s come a long way from where she was at last year and we’re excited about her. Both her and Chloe played a lot of minutes last year, and we’ll likely lean on those two names early in the season.”

Another key senior returning will be Breanne Giotto, who O’Donnell described as having tenacity and a bulldog mentality. Giotto will likely operate as a guard.

Five players were also brought up from the JV and freshman teams. Up from the JV are juniors Sierra Hendrickson, Jillian Skewis, Larissa Anderson and Morgan Carlson. Lilly Nelson, now a sophomore, will take the leap from the freshman team straight to varsity.

O’Donnell said Carlson will be able to complement the inside game with Hill, while Nelson comes on board as a threat beyond the arc.

Negaunee faces a tough slate, and it’s the first time O’Donnell will face a schedule with teams from both the West PAC and M-PC, as well as Great Northern Conference opponents Escanaba, Marquette and Gladstone.

“For everything I hear, there’s a lot of talented players on a lot of those teams,” he said. “Navigating through, learning teams, coaches and systems is going to be a challenge as we move along. There seems to be a lot of talent out there.”

Much of that talent can be found on one team, the team that everyone is looking to beat, nearby foe Westwood. Negaunee was the only team to top them in the regular season last year, and the teams have had some tight regular season and postseason battles in recent memory, with the Patriots getting the best of the Miners the previous two postseasons.

“Maybe the best team of them all is one of our close neighbors,” O’Donnell said. “I’m very impressed by them. They’re bringing back everybody and they’re going to be tough to deal with.

“Obviously with where Westwood is at, they’re the top dog and the team everyone is gunning for. We’re going to take the regular season as a measuring stick and try to figure out a way to tackle them in districts. I’m sure most coaches are saying the same thing.”

As O’Donnell looks to Game No. 1 against Manistique on Dec. 3, he knows he has big shoes to fill to keep the Miners as prestigious as it’s been in recent years.

“I have big shoes to fill,” he said. “They’ve really had a prestigious program here. The girls program is traditionally strong, and I’m definitely looking to continue that and build upon that success.”

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.