MUNISING - In terms of following up on last season, no team in the Upper Peninsula will be looked at more in the coming months than Munising.
After a season of accolades and milestones in which the Mustangs won their first district championship in 55 years and went on to win a regional championship, head coach Dan Waterman is looking to maintain the momentum gained last season to find success in the aftermath.
"It's definitely going to be a different year for us," said Waterman, who was the U.P. Class D Coach of the Year last season. "We go from a team that starts four seniors to a team with some relative youth. We have nine guys, five of them are going to be sophomores, although two of those sophomores played pretty extensive minutes last year for us as freshmen."
Munising forward Gage Webster takes a shot at Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium in Negaunee last season during an MHSAA playoff game. Webster was the Mustangs’ second leading scorer last season. (Journal file photo)
One of the four seniors that Waterman lost was Kenya Oas, a notable presence in the Mustang's success last season who also earned the titles of U.P. Class D Player of the Year, an all-state pick in Class D and a member of the U.P. Dream Team.
"I could see us starting slow possibly," Waterman said of his fairly young team. "With five sophomores, it's a young team. There is going to be a lot of learning to do.
"The one thing I really like about this team is that they are very smart, they pick things up quickly, so we're not having to continually repeat ourselves at practice. They're learning how to do things and of course we revisit those things, but you can add new concepts, new plays and they pick it up really quick."
The learning curve has been made all the more difficult by the Mustangs inclusion in the Central U.P. Conference, as they will be competing against teams they don't typically see in a season.
"We play a pretty tough schedule," Waterman said. "This is our first year in the C.U.P., so there's a learning curve there too.
"We're a defense-first team and a lot of our success on defense is dependant on knowing what the opposition does.
"So there will be a feeling out process there as well. It's going to be an interesting year for us."
Adding to the preseason stress for Waterman has been the loss of three key players to injuries. While two of the three are projected to be back in a couple weeks, Waterman said that sophomore Austin Kelto, who was one of only two freshmen on the team last year, isn't expected to be back for a while and is out with a leg injury.
"We're going to have to be cautious with Austin," Waterman said. "He's a young kid, he's only a sophomore, and we want to make sure that that leg is fully healed before we have him back doing full contact activity."
Among those that are back injury-free are seniors Gage Webster, who was the team's second leading scorer last season, and Michael Mannisto.
"Gage Webster and Michael Mannisto are good players, good shooters and they've been through the works," Waterman said. "They know what it takes to win in the final minutes of the game and they know how valuable every possession is in a game. It starts with those two and then two of the sophomores, the two that played last year for me as freshmen, Austin Kelto and Ben Stasewich."
Waterman said that Stasewich, being the tallest kid on the team at 6-foot-5, will be the primary post for the relatively small team.
"I'm a little bit worried about our size," Waterman said. "With Ben in the middle at 6-5, he's a big kid, but other than that, we only have one other guy over six feet. We have a whole bunch of guys at 5-10 and like I said, five of those kids are sophomores.
"So I worry about rebounding a little bit. This summer at our team camps, we got bounced around a little bit."
Yet, Waterman is assured that if given some time to progress as a team, the Mustangs will be vying again for the district title.
"I think getting out of the gate might be a struggle for us just because of our inexperience," he said. "But I think three quarters of the way through the season, we're going to be a pretty formidable team, and hopefully we're peaking at district time and it will be a battle."