NEGAUNEE, Mich. (WJMN) – The Negaunee Miners Girl’s Basketball Team finds themselves in familiar territory to start the 2022-2023 season. They are a team looking for an identity. With a couple of key returning players and some new faces, the hope is to build on their success from last year.

“It wasn’t all roses last year,” said Mike O’Donnell, the head coach for the Miners. “We hit a rough stretch at the beginning of the year. I think we lost four out of five and eventually I think like five out of seven right there in the beginning middle stretch of the year. We were struggling to find an identity.”

That Identity was eventually found. The Miners turned things around leaning on a balanced offensive attack and priding themselves on the defensive end of the floor.

Using that formula, Negaunee peaked at the right time playing their best basketball when it counted in the playoffs. The Miners reached their goal of winning a district title before ultimately falling in the regional round.

“I think one thing that we learned is that you got to circle the wagons and stick true to what you believe and your game plans,” said Mike O’Donnell the head coach for the Miners. “We didn’t re-invent the wheel, we just got better at what we do. The girls bought into that and we ended up finishing the season on a great run. I think that’s been the message so far and will be the message as we continue is Rome was not built in a day. This thing is a process and you got to stick with that process each day.”

One player who shined on the big stage was Ella Mason. The then sophomore made big play after big play and was a key contributor to Negaunee’s run.

This season, Mason will be looked at to play a bigger role after the Miners said goodbye to nine seniors from last season.

“It all started last year, I was able to sit back and learn a lot from those seniors along with getting a ton of experience in the playoffs,” said Mason. “I think that just kind of led me into this year having a lot of confidence and working really hard with AdvantEdge and Coach Branch just helped me prepare for this season.”

Through the first few weeks on the season, Mason has been as advertised with her offseason work already paying dividends. Mason says working on her strength has helped in all aspects of her game.

“I’m able to play stay on my feet a lot more, play better defense and move my feet,” said Mason. “Just becoming better in every single aspect of my game, my leadership I think has definitely took a step up this year with being one of the only returners.”

What this season may ultimately come down to for the Miners is the growth of the supporting cast around Mason.

“I mean, it’s just me and Cooper Atkins back,” said Mason. “She’s our only senior and she’s stepping into a huge leadership role.”

“Cooper is going to have to score for us, she’s probably our best perimeter threat other than Ella,” said O’Donnell. “She can really fill it in from the outside and she just has a good scoring nac. She really knows how to get to the bucket. I look at Aubrey Johnson, she’s had a couple of really successful sisters. One that just graduated and played at Michigan Tech. You can see her just getting ready to take that next step as a sophomore she’s really close and a talented player. Grace Nardi has been really great so far coming up as a junior.”

“We want to have good team chemistry,” said Nardi. “We want to support each other through it all. Throughout the season we realize that there is going to be ups and downs but we want to support each other through the highs and the lows as well.”

If the first few games are any indication, these players are up for the challenge.

“Obviously, its no secret, it’s going to start with Ella being one of our returners and an accomplished scorer,” said O’Donnell. “She’s going to have to do a lot for us. At the same time Ella’s realized and we realize that she’s going to get a lot of attention and it’s going to mean a lot of other opportunities for a lot of people. I think we’re seeing some of that already this season. Last week, in our first few games we’ve multiple girls in double figures on both nights. That was great to see and I think we had five against Gladstone.”

We might be thought of somewhat of an underdog this year,” said Nardi. “But I think we’ve already surprised some people this year with coming out against Escanaba and holding our own against them.”

“Really I don’t think our goals change,” said Mason. “Even though we lost nine seniors I don’t think our goals of winning a district and winning our conference and making a deep playoff run change. Obviously, there is going to have to be some things we have to learn along the way but that doesn’t change our goals.”

Negaunee will travel to Houghton on Friday to take on the Gremlins. Tip off is set for 7:15ET/6:15CT.