In pursuit of perfection

News File Photo Oscoda’s Owen Franklin (14) tries to maneuver around Alcona defenders Josh Kilbourn (30) and Dominic Howe during a boys basketball game in January at Oscoda High School. Led by Franklin, the Owls are off to a 17-0 start this season and have matched a program record for wins.

During Katelyn Etherton’s freshman season, the Oscoda girls basketball team won just three games.

The next season, the Owls won just seven games.

It may not have looked like much then, but in the midst of their struggles, brighter days were ahead for the Owls.

Fast forward to Etherton’s senior year and Oscoda’s program has done a complete 180. Where they once struggled to keep pace with their North Star League rivals, the Owls are one of the best teams in the conference this season and are off to their best start in years.

Entering Monday’s matchup with Hillman, the Owls are 14-0 and should all but wrap up the North Star League’s Big Dipper division title if they beat Rogers City on Friday.

News File Photo Oscoda’s Katelyn Etherton (2) drives to the basket during a game against Au Gres in this file photo. Etherton, a four-year varsity player, is at the heart of the Oscoda girls basketball team’s turnaround and has helped the Owls to a 14-0 start this season. Combined, Oscoda’s basketball teams are 31-0 this year.

It’s been a rewarding season for the Owls and especially for Etherton, who remembers what it was like to be on the outside looking in just a few seasons ago.

“It was hard to picture that something like this could happen. That my team could rise up and become what we have done now,” Etherton said. “The team has changed from then to now. This team’s chemistry is unlike any other.”

While the Oscoda girls team is racing toward a perfect regular season, the Oscoda boys team is seeing its hard work pay off as well.

After defeating Whittemore-Prescott on Friday, the Owls are 17-0 and have matched a program record for regular season wins.

With a combined 31-0 record, Oscoda is one of two schools in Michigan with two undefeated basketball teams. As of Thursday, Bellevue’s basketball teams are a combined 29-0.

Oscoda boys coach Seth Alda saw the possibilities for his team’s success coming a few seasons ago. The bulk of this year’s roster is comprised of a group that grew up together in Oscoda’s youth basketball program and the experience and chemistry those players gained then is paying big dividends at the high school level.

The Owls won just eight games two seasons ago, but Oscoda’s competitiveness was evident. The Owls lost five games by six points or less and proved to be a tough matchup for a number of opponents.

“Even two years ago when Brayden Mallak was a freshman, I think we won eight, nine games. We were competitive,” Alda said. “There was five or six more games where we were just a few possessions away and Brayden was one of our leading scorers. We could see it coming.”

Two seasons later, the roles are reversed. The Owls sit in first place in the Big Dipper with an 11-0 record, they’ve won several close games–including a pair of wire-to-wire games with Mio–and wrapped up the Big Dipper title on Friday.

What the Owls also have is a versatile group of players with great chemistry. At the head of that group is Owen Franklin. The sophomore was a welcome surprise for the Owls last season as he averaged 12 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. This season he’s taken on a bigger leadership role while averaging 15.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

“He’s taken a leadership role,” Alda said. “A number of really guys really have.”

Aside from Franklin, Mallak averages 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and Gabe Kellstrom is averaging 11.4 points.

As good as the Owls have been this season, it’s unlikely they’ll be a one-year wonder. Franklin will only be a junior next season and Kellstrom, Mallak, Devin Thomas, Caleb Watson and Chance Kruse will be seniors.

We’re still really young, we are. We’ve got three or four seniors, but we’re still pretty young,” Alda said. “These guys have played a lot. Our juniors and sophomores have played a ton. They’ve been playing since like third grade, travel ball together. They’ve had a travel group going for a long time. They’ve played a lot of games and have a lot of experience playing together, so it’s kind of fun.”

Oscoda’s girls program has come a long way since it went winless in four seasons between 1998-2003. Last year’s 13-9 campaign gave Oscoda just its second winning season in 30 years and earned coach Mark Toppi Associated Press Class C Coach of the Year honors. Oscoda won five of its last seven games last year and ultimately came up short of a district title, losing to Alcona in the final.

Motivated by last season’s success, the Owls have picked up right where they left off last season.

“Last season was already record breaking, but we knew we could do better,” Etherton said. “Losing (in the) district finals to Alcona was our motivation to work harder and achieve more this season.”

Oscoda’s success is an exciting change for players like Etherton, who recently scored her 1,000th career point and has been at the heart of Oscoda’s rebuilding efforts.

“It is inspiring to have my teammates looking up to me. It makes me wanna push harder for everyone around me, my coach, my friends, and especially my team,” Etherton said of her role as a team leader. “It’s been an exciting season. We are making history. We have worked hard for this from summer ball to real season, from scrimmages to free time.”

While Etherton is the veteran, the Owls have arguably one of the deepest teams in the area offensively. Lauren Langley averages 16.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, Brooke Nowiski averages 9.3 points, Izzy Hulverson averages 7.5 and Macy Kellstrom averages 7.1 points.

It’s a big reason why the Owls are winning games by an average of 29 points and have only been tested a few times. The closest margin of victory was a 54-47 home win over Alcona on Feb. 11.

As exciting as the season has been for both Oscoda teams, they’ve got bigger aspirations. It’s been a long time since either one of them tasted postseason success and they’re both in perhaps the best position to end that drought as they’ve ever been.

The Oscoda boys are seeking their first district title since 1999-2000 and the Oscoda girls are aiming for their first district since 1966-67.

When he won Coach of the Year last season, Toppi called the award a team honor and predicted even bigger things for his team in the future.

The Owls appear will on their way to making that happen and want to do everything possible to make that prediction come true.

“Every single girl is coming back. I think we’ve just got to get a little more mature,” Toppi told The News last April. “It could be our best season ever.”