Win three consecutive Class C district titles anywhere else in the U.P., and your program is typically revered. But not in the Copper Country, where boys basketball takes a backseat to hockey and members of the Central U.P. snicker about the quality of ball up here.
For the Calumet Copper Kings to gain respect, they must make some noise at the regional. And after a 63-41 win over the Houghton Gremlins in the Class C District 96 title game Wednesday in Calumet, they’re more equipped to do so than in years past.
“In the past two seasons, it felt a little bit overpowering going to regionals, but this year I know that we can do stuff,” Calumet junior Matt Ojala said. “Most teams don’t get much respect up here. We gotta go down to regionals and show them that we can play.”
Watch the Copper Kings (17-5) once, and there’s no doubting their offensive abilities. It’s not the typical Calumet teams of years past that had to rely on winning ugly with relentless physical defense.
They still defend with that hard-nosed mentality, led by junior Travis Ojala. But the Copper Kings also have one of the premier guards in the U.P. in Matt Ojala, who set Calumet’s single-season scoring record with 445 points after he scored 16 against Houghton to break the record held by Chuck Boorman in 1965-66 (444 points).
“He puts a ton of time in,” Calumet coach Mike Ojala said. “What he does for our offense is exceptional in that he can score the way he does while still creating for others.
“I’m proud of him and the work that he puts in. He deserves to get that recognition.”
Then there’s the inside presence of senior Cooper Twardzik — the other member of Calumet’s three consecutive district titles. Twardzik overpowered Houghton inside for 17 points and seven rebounds, while junior Brandon Antilla hit three 3s and senior Evan Hyrkas swished two more to provide Calumet with an abundance of offensive threats against Houghton’s numerous defenses, including a triangle-and-2 and 1-2-2 zone.
Combined with limiting Houghton to 6 of 20 shooting, a confident Calumet squad took a 30-16 halftime lead.
“Offensively, these guys aren’t afraid of anything,” Mike Ojala said. “They know they can score … There isn’t anyone they will be afraid of.”
Houghton made a run, mostly because sophomore Brad Sirard and junior George Butvilas have proven to be too difficult for a team to keep both in check for an entire game. The duo scored all 16 points during Houghton’s third quarter, and Sirard capped a 16-4 run with a 3 from the volleyball line near the “Copper Kings” writing above the sideline, cutting Calumet’s lead to 34-32 with 1:23 left in the third.
Sirard finished with a game-high 18 points while Butvilas had 15.
“We went into halftime and said we had to get chaotic with what we were doing,” Houghton coach Jared Lawson said. “We told them to come down, whoever gets the rebound and push it up. And told Brad and George that we’re going to have three guys screening, look to set your feet, go and let it rip.”
Houghton was also finally able to cut off driving lanes and force Calumet into tough jumpers to start the third. The Copper Kings were scoreless for the first 3:50 of the third quarter until a Travis Ojala free throw, and missed on their first 10 shots of the second half.
“We just kind of got on our heels, and when we were doing that, I thought we got flustered and softened up defensively,” Mike Ojala said. “But that’s a credit to the Houghton kids. We talked at halftime about how they were going to come out swinging.”
But just when Houghton (9-13) appeared to make a game out of it, Calumet answered with a layup from sophomore Eli McParlan and a 3 by Hyrkas on an assist from Matt Ojala for a 39-32 lead going into the fourth quarter. That hole proved to be too much for the Gremlins.
When it was all said and done, it was a 24-4 Calumet run after a Matt Ojala layup put the Copper Kings ahead 58-36 in the final minutes.
“We got ourselves so far behind, so you’re trying to get yourself out of that, force some traps,” Lawson said. “And I’m sorry, but Matt Ojala is probably one of the best point guards in the U.P., and he’s going to break you down, and he did that to us.”
Overall, Calumet shot 24 of 52 from the field (46 percent) and held a 33-27 rebounding advantage.
Houghton made 17 of 46 shot attempts (37 percent) and had 13 turnovers compared to just five for Calumet.
Next, Calumet will play the winner of Harbor Springs and Indian River Inland Lakes on Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Marquette. The other regional semifinal will pit the winner of West Iron County and Iron Mountain vs. the Ishpeming and Westwood winner.
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Houghton 5 11 16 9 — 41
Calumet 17 13 9 24 — 63
Houghton — Butvilas 15, Brundage 2, Sirard 18, Cooper 4, Roth 2. F: 13; Fouled out: Keskimaki; Free throws: 3-9; 3-point field goals: Sirard, Butvilas.
Calumet — Matt Ojala 16, Travis Ojala 6, Brandon Antilla 9, McParlan 4, Hyrkas 6, Torola 2, Brevin Antilla 3, Twardzik 17. Fouled out: None; Free throws: 9-14; 3-point field goals: Brandon Antilla 3, Hyrkas 2, Brevin Antilla.