By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
HILLMAN – Eric Muszynski still remembers that day in 2005 when, as the newly appointed boys basketball coach at Hillman, he made a promise to the man who hired him, administrator Jack Richards.
As they gazed at the banners in the school gymnasium – highlighted by the school’s three MHSAA Class D championships in baseball – Muszynski vowed to add some basketball banners to the collection.
“He (Richards) chuckled,” Muszynski recalled. “He said, ‘Try to get to .500 first.’”
Historically, Hillman’s been a baseball town. The Tigers played for MHSAA championships four times in six years during the 1990s.
“Basketball was something you did to stay in shape for baseball,” said Richards, who went on to serve as superintendent for five years. “Eric’s turned that around.”
Since 2009, Hillman has won four North Star Conference basketball championships, five Districts and one Regional. The Tigers stretched their regular-season win streak to 44 after Thursday night’s 68-38 victory over Mio. Their last regular-season loss was to Cedarville in the 2014-15 opener.
Quite a turnaround for a program that had won only one league title prior to Muszynski’s arrival.
“And that wasn’t an outright title,” senior guard Gunnar Libby said.
Libby, a first-team Associated Press all-state pick last season, is the catalyst for this 5-0 Tigers team. A four-year varsity veteran, Libby has played a vital role in the program’s growth. Hillman won its first outright league title when he was a freshman, captured its first Regional crown when he was a sophomore, and posted its first unbeaten regular season when he was a junior.
“I’ve been really lucky to play on some good teams,” he said.
The turnaround did not happen overnight. The Tigers were 10-32 in Muszynski’s first two years.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Will we ever get over that hump?’” Muszynski wondered.
His boss stood by him.
“I had some people come to my office, saying he wasn’t the guy for the job,” Richards said. “I told them, ‘Settle down. This guy will bring us championships.’ Eric heard me, and he took it to heart. He worked hard to prove me right.”
In his third season, Muszynski led Hillman to an 11-10 mark. From there, the program took off.
“It’s been truly amazing,” the former Alpena High School standout said. “As a coach, you envision and hope that your program can do big things. We’ve been in that conversation – of trying to get down to East Lansing (for the Final Four) – since 2013 when we almost upset Cedarville (a double overtime loss) in the Regional Final.”
Hillman, sparked by Mason VanPamel and Ty Jones, reached the Quarterfinals in 2015 before losing to eventual champion Powers North Central.
It looked like the Tigers might be in for a rebuild last season, losing eight seniors and four starters to graduation. Instead, Hillman won its first 22 games before losing to Onaway 58-57 in the District Final.
“We were counted out from the very beginning,” Libby said. “We proved everybody wrong.”
Still, the setback to Onaway – a team Hillman had knocked out of the Districts the previous three years – left a bitter taste. Onaway reached the Quarterfinals, but that loss motivates the Tigers.
When his team first gathered for practice this season, Muszynski stressed the importance of “protecting” its league title as well as recapturing the District championship. Hillman had won three Districts in a row before its sudden exit last March.
“That District (trophy) should be in Hillman,” Libby said.
That statement reflects how far this program has evolved. It’s a program that’s now won 46 consecutive league games and 36 consecutive home games.
Those streaks continue to grow, although Libby admitted he’s lost count.
“You just go out there and do what you’ve got to do,” he said.
The 5-foot-9 Libby is the floor general and lone senior in the starting lineup. He averages 25 points and six assists per game. He surpassed 1,000 career points in the season opener when he dropped 30 on Cedarville.
“He’s lightning quick,” Muszynski said. “He’s a tough kid; a hard-nosed, old school style point guard.”
Libby’s backcourt mate, 5-10 junior Brandon Banks, averages nearly 15 a game.
“That’s been our recipe for success since 2009,” Muszynski said. “We usually feature two dynamic scorers.”
Andrew Funk, a 6-foot junior, is also averaging in double figures. He scored 19 in Tuesday’s win, hitting five of Hillman’s 13 3-pointers.
The Tigers compensate for lack of size with speed, a trapping defense and a dangerous perimeter game. Kory Henigan, a 6-4 sophomore, and Billy Kolcan, a 6-1 junior, are the tallest starters. Henigan averages eight points and seven rebounds while the athletic Kolcan, an MHSAA Finals qualifier in track and an honorable mention all-state player in football, spearheads the press.
“He (Kolcan) plays up front on our press,” Muszynski said. “He makes us go. He’s one of the best athletes to come through our school in a long time.”
Kolcan, Banks and Funk were on varsity as sophomores last season.
“On paper, it appears we’re young,” Muszynski said. “But we’re battle-tested.”
And, according to Libby, cohesive, too.
“We work well together,” Libby said. “We’re unselfish – and we scrap.”
Now, the Tigers would like to start playing more basketball. Hillman played just three games in December after two contests were postponed due to weather.
“It’s hard to get any kind of rhythm and consistency when you play two games, then you’re off two weeks, you play one game, then you’re off another two weeks,” Libby said.
As for Muszynski, this is his 12th season at Hillman. He was hired as a physical education/health/social studies teacher and girls basketball coach. When the boys job opened soon afterward, he added that to his responsibilities. He coached both teams for two years before the MHSAA switched girls basketball season to the winter. Even though the girls were 30-12 in those two seasons under his leadership, he felt coaching boys basketball was his calling.
“I liked the challenge,” he said. “With the girls, I walked into a good program. With the boys, I wanted to see if I could build a program.”
With a win over Rudyard just before the holiday break, the 37-year-old Muszynski notched his 200th career win at Hillman (30 with the girls, 170 with the boys).
“He’s been a real blessing for us,” Libby said. “He’s a great coach. He holds us all accountable. He’s thorough, and he can motivate. He knows his stuff.”
“I’m truly blessed,” Muszynski added. “That’s (200 wins) a credit to my players, past and present.”
Muszynski echoed those same sentiments after he won the Associated Press Class D Coach of the Year honor last season.
“One of the proudest moments in my coaching career,” he admitted. “Not only was it a great reward, but it was a reflection of our basketball program here.”
Richards, meanwhile, takes satisfaction in the basketball program’s accomplishments. Now retired, he still follows the Tigers – and Muszynski.
What did he see in Muszynski when he hired him in 2005?
“He has a drive,” Richards said. “He knows what it takes and the work that’s involved. A lot of people just want to work during the season, and when it’s over they’re done. That’s not Eric. He’s a worker, a planner. You could see his desire.”
Richards also feared, once the boys started winning, that Muszynski might leave for a bigger school. He even mentioned that to Muszynski.
“Eric said, ‘You gave me the opportunity to be a head coach and I want to do right by you,’” Richards recalled. “I said, ‘I understand that. But let me give you a piece of advice: it’s easier to build a dynasty in a small town than in a large town.’ I think he’s done a pretty good job with that.”
Muszynski looked north to Cedarville for inspiration. Coach Dave Duncan developed that program into a state contender. The Trojans won an MHSAA title in 2007 and nearly another two years later.
“I thought if a small Class D school in the Upper Peninsula can do that, why can’t we?” Muszynski reasoned.
One of Muszynski’s first priorities was to start applying his philosophies in the youth program so by the time those players reached the varsity they would know the defensive schemes and offensive sets.
“They’ve seen success so they know the formula works,” Muszynski said. “If you have some success, and start to win championships, everyone starts to buy in.”
As for baseball? Practice is still several weeks away.
“When I first got there,” Richards recalled, “the kids, after basketball practice, would put their gloves on and throw the baseball around. They even had a batting cage in the old gym. Now, you don’t see a baseball glove in the gym during the winter.”
Now you see basketball banners.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gunnar Libby, who has scored more than 1,000 points during his Hillman career, cuts through a group of defenders. (Middle) Hillman coach Eric Muszynski addresses his team. (Photos courtesy of The Alpena News.)