MENOMINEE — It has been just over a month since the MHSAA made the decision to cancel the remainder of the winter sports and all of the spring season, and while time may heal all wounds, the pain of not being able to suit up for the district championship still lingers for coach Sam Larson and the Menominee boys basketball team.

Maybe if it was not so sudden and unexpected it would have made it easier to deal with. But the reality is, after winning the district semifinals over Gladstone on Wednesday, March 9, rumors immediately started swirling around that the new coronavirus spreading around the world could cause either a limited crowd for Friday’s title game, or it might not happen at all.

Once Thursday morning came around, the decision was made to limit the crowd to 100 people, and by the end of the day the rest of the postseason had been suspended by order of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and the Maroons’ hopes of hosting their first district title since 2002 were crushed just 24 hours after an exciting 74-64 victory over the Braves.

“It was tough for us because in a 24-hour period we went from being about as happy and thrilled as we could be to being completely heartbroken,” Larson said. “We thoroughly understand the MHSAA’s decision and agree that the health of everybody is the number one concern, but we would have loved to be able to sneak that Friday night game in. An opportunity to hoist a district championship trophy on your home floor does not happen every year, and we truly felt like we had as much momentum as anyone in the U.P. at the time.”

The Maroons’ certainly had a case for the hottest team north of the Mackinac Bridge, as they were heading into the championship game on a six game winning streak and were winners of 10 out of their last 11 games.

It was not like that all season, however.

Menominee started the season by dropping all four of its games in December for an 0-4 record when the calendar flipped over to January. Once 2020 hit and the Maroons were able to get in a groove, the wins started coming and the confidence continued to grow.

A close win over a tough North Central squad on the road gave Menominee its second win of the year on back-to-back nights to kickoff January, then a month later the Maroons pulled off what at the time was the upset of the year on the road against Escanaba.

Three days after the Esky game, Marquette steamrolled Menominee on the Redmen’s home floor, and from there the Maroons rattled off six straight to end the season including a game on the road in Kingsford where Menominee wiped away a 21-point deficit in the second half to win on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Cooper Conway.

“Going through the season, the situations you encounter really prepare you for the postseason. The North Central game was huge for us, winning a close on against a good opponent. Marquette came out and punched us in the face after we beat Esky and got a little too comfortable and that was a nice reality check. Then the Kingsford game at the end of the year was big for us too, showing ourselves that we can comeback from a big second half deficit,” Larson said.

The development of everyone on the Maroons squad was apparent in the numbers. After going 0-4 in 2019, Menominee went 12-4 in 2020, shot 10 percent better from the floor and averaged 63.3 points in 16 games while giving up 56.3.

“In the second half of the season our offense seemed to develop some flow, and defensively we were much better at getting in gaps and providing help. That’s a huge credit to the work ethic of our players and to my coaching staff who spent countless hours working with our guys,” Larson said. “There were many times coach (Steve) Schahczenski, coach (Tyler) Eland and coach (Tyler) Price would be staying after to rebound or work on concepts individually.”

While social distancing has made getting together for an award banquet in person not possible, Larson decided to set up a Zoom meeting with his team to hand out some season awards and run through the highlights of the season.

Conway, a sophomore, received the BCAM Team First Award, which is based upon teamwork, commitment, service, and sacrifice on behalf of your teammates, team and school. He was nominated by his coaches to the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan, and after facing more adversity in one season than most kids face in their high school career, he was awarded a spot.

“Coming off of football season Coop had a nasty ankle injury that lingered past Christmas, and then as soon as we got him healthy and playing, he got sick and was out for another few weeks,” Larson said. “I was most impressed with the fact that he made it to every practice he could, paid attention, motivated his teammates and was a tremendous leader as a sophomore. When we finally got him back playing at the end of the year he was a big part of our success. He’s a strong kid with great shooting touch and we hope he’s available for the entire season next year because he could be special.”

To no one’s surprise, the team’s Most Valuable Player award was given to senior Keagan Monroe, the do-it-all guy for the Maroons that led the way in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals and was close to unstoppable if he got ahead in transition.

“Keagan did so much for us both ends of the court,” Larson said. “He led us in the four major stat categories which is a remarkable feat. He was a walking double-double and a game changer for us this year. It was funny because later in the year we would be watching film of other teams and every once in a while we would see a kid put down a dunk, and if they weren’t taking off from the middle of the lane trying to rip the rim off the hoop it didn’t impress us anymore. We became accustomed to the things Keagan did on a regular basis.”

Junior Zach Starzynski was named Most Improved Player as he worked his way from playing a few minutes here and there to start the season to eventually starting a few games at the end of the year.

“Zach is a guy that took advantage of his minutes and kept getting better and better throughout the year. He started the season not seeing much time, but when he did he would score a couple points, grab some rebounds, and play solid defense,” Larson said. “He kept getting more time and his confidence grew. At the end of the season, we relied on him as an on-ball defender and a creator on the wing. We hope he can continue to improve and shoulder a greater load next year.”

The Mr. Reliable award is given to anyone who does not miss a single game or practice throughout the whole year, whether it be to sickness, vacation or injury. Not as easy as it sounds when you play 20 games and have 62 practices in a five-month span, and three players (seniors Brock Barrette, Dante Sartorelli; sophomore Brady Badker) received the honor.

“Mr. Reliable is a tremendous award in my opinion,” Larson said. “For a player to not get sick, and be in attendance for each and every one of those days is quite an achievement.”

The final award given out was new this season. Larson and his coaching staff wanted to create an award that emphasized defensive prowess, and while many great defenders have come through Menominee High School over the years, they chose to name the award after the late Tommy Janson, who captained the 2008 state semifinals Menominee team.

During that playoff run, Janson shutdown Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, Brad Redford, in the quarterfinal game in Houghton Lake and was truly an elite defender throughout his career.

For his efforts on defense throughout the season, senior Brock Barrette received the inaugural Tommy Janson Lockdown Defender Award.

“Coach Eland and I had the privilege of playing with Tommy, and there have been many times we referenced his defensive abilities and wished we had a defender like him on the floor this year. We chose to give the award to Brock for his relentless defensive efforts in our playoff games, guarding guys like (Brad) Simonsen and (Rane) Castor, and relishing his role of being a defensive stopper.”

This group of seniors are the first group that Larson has had to say goodbye to and they have laid a great foundation for the underclassmen. Now, it is up to the sophomores and juniors to keep the ball rolling for the future.

“I am truly thankful to our seniors for bringing a new level of energy and enthusiasm to Menominee Basketball. Some of those guys have been with me for three years, which is worthy of an award in itself I think,” Larson joked. “But they have left the program in a better place than where they found it, and we will always be appreciative of them and their efforts. It is the job of our underclassmen now to pick up the torch and continue building on the work that has been started.”

Larson ended the Zoom meeting by showing a video of the team rushing him in the locker room after the district semifinal win and told them that is something he will never forget and the highlight of his first three years as a coach. He left the 2019-2020 Maroons with one final fact — they are the first team to end their season with a win since the 1967 state championship team.