Kalkaska’s girls basketball team returns seven of its top eight players, and four of its five starters from last year, as the Blue Blazers are expected to be one of the teams battling for the Lake Michigan Conference again.
Three of the Blue Blazers’ players – Natalie Ryckman, Micah Lajewski and Sapphire Lajewski – are entering their fourth year on the varsity and another, Makenzie Wilkinson, is in her third. It certainly makes a strong case for the Blazers to be battling for the league title again.
Personnel turnover presents a major challenge for any team, and the Blazers are no different. Sydney Perry is gone, and head coach Dave Dalton said she was the Blazers’ best defensive player and also shoot the 3-ball extremely well.
“She’s the only player we really lost,” Dalton said. “We played eight kids a lot last year, and seven of them are back. We have a freshman (Margaret Stocio) that’s pretty and we have an (German) exchange student (Emilia Lehmann) that’s halfway decent.
“We have good depth, and good experience. It’s quite a balanced team, with quite a few weapons and players that can take care of the ball very well. It should be a fun year. (But) we have the toughest schedule we’ve ever had.
“Our non-conference schedule we dropped everybody but Kingsley, and they’re going to be a great team. They have three transfers that are all all-state type players. Two of them have been all-state already, and the other is going to Lake Superior.”
The Blazers are also scheduled to play Gaylord, which has an all-state that’s 5-foot-9 and very athletic, as well as Lake City. Kalkaska is making road trips to St. Ignace this year.
It’s not just the non-league schedule that will test the Blazers mettle.
Last year the Blazers won 20 games, and they had 21 wins the year before. With so many of the players involved in that run back it’s little wonder the Kalkaska faithful have some big dreams as the season tips off Friday against McBain.
Over the past seven years the league has mostly been a two horse race between Kalkaska and Traverse City St. Francis, and the Gladiators are again poised for another run at the title with 6-foot-4 Juliana Phillips the nucleus of an experienced team that also returns Lauren Bramer, Krystal Coyne, Joyana Tarsa and Delin Kanitz.
Although only a freshman, Elise Stuck should strengthen Charlevoix in the post after a stellar volleyball season during which she received all-state honorable mention honors. At over 6-feet tall, Stuck will be a presence in the paint both defensively and offensively.
Elk Rapids was young last year, and the Elks may still need time to develop into a bona fide league contender. But it would be foolhardy to overlook the Elks simply because of their youth. They showed steady improvement last year, and they could play a spoiler’s role in the league.
Dalton, as always, likes his team’s chances of making a run at the title.
“We have a bunch of kids that know how to play,” Dalton said.
Ryckman was honorable mention all-state last year, and Wilkinson has earned all-state honors as a freshman and sophomore. Micah Lajewski was first team all-conference three years in a row, and is an excellent guard.
The players who came off the bench last year got a lot of minutes and they should benefit from the experience. It gives the Blazers a lot of quality depth.
Sapphire Lajewski still has untapped potential, and the size to be a real force inside.
Kalkaska has had at least 20 wins in five of the last seven years, 18 wins in six of the last seven and won districts six of the last seven years.
Whether the Blazers can continue that level of success on the court remains to be seen. But they’ll be a fun team to watch.
Sometimes, you need a lot of luck, too.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News.