This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
HOUGHTON, Mich. -- While many schools go to great pains to sell themselves to any student, from any place, Michigan Tech clearly is sticking to the snow-covered road less traveled.
The truth is, this place is not for everyone, due to the academic rigors, relative isolation, and frigid cruelty and length of its Upper Peninsula winters. Houghton, a town of 7,700 tucked into the Keweenaw Peninsula, and its neighboring town, Hancock, population 4,600, sit centered in the slender pinkie finger of rolling hills and deep woods that juts into the icy, winter-black waters of Lake Superior. There are no shopping malls or 24-screen cineplexes, no giant warehouse clubs where you can buy a 3-gallon container of laundry detergent. Getting to the state's biggest city, Detroit, means a 10-hour drive -- if you're lucky enough to evade a snow or ice storm this time of year.
Students come to Michigan Tech because it's their chosen destination. And when they come, it's said, they fall deeply in love with the area's rugged beauty, the detachment from urban stresses, the strength of the university community and a sense of special place in the northern woods.
Michigan Tech also shows true love for women's basketball, a relationship that started more than 25 years ago. The Huskies are one of Division II's most successful programs, as evidenced by the banners marking their achievements: 2011 NCAA runners-up, four NCAA regional championships and 11 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. Michigan Tech has been in the NCAA tournament 16 of the past 21 seasons.
Still, this place is not for everyone.
"I cried the whole way up when I came up here. I thought this was going to be the end of the world," said coach Kim Cameron, who starred at forward for the Huskies from 2001 to 2005. "I was coming from Alpena [a small town in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, about six hours away], because my brother was in school here. I missed him a lot, so I came here, too, but thought it would be awful. Once I got here, it was over.
"I stopped crying because this place is heaven. This is the most magical place on earth, and I am so lucky to be here. It's why I never left."
Cameron's heaven has snowstorms, fueled by the world's largest body of freshwater in Lake Superior, that can dump 20 inches in a whiteout whipped by 30 mph winds. Her heaven has deer, bears, coyotes and moose that live in the woods by campus, and trout, salmon and whitefish running in the nearby lakes and rivers. And her heaven has a winning basketball team that is underpinned by the extraordinary bonds of friendship and trust among its players and coaches.
"It's hard to explain what is going on here until you get here, then it all makes sense; you feel like you're at home here at school and with this team," said senior guard Krista Kasuboski, a native of Wautoma, Wis. "I'd never heard of this place until they started recruiting me. You wonder what is going on here, why anybody would come all the way up here ... and then you never want to leave.
"You get so close to everybody, they're your family. You're far from your family when you're up here, so you develop your own second family. I can say every person on this team is my friend. We're hanging out together even when we don't have to be. I can't imagine life without them now."
2011 magic and 2012 reality
This season's team, made up of most of the starters from last season's 31-3 club, is second in the GLIAC's North Division with a 17-6 record (12-5 conference). Last season will go down as one of the most special in school history. And not just because of the team's record, the GLIAC title or the national championship game appearance, but because of the way it all happened.
In many ways, every Michigan Tech team -- this season's included -- will be measured against the 2010-11 team. Cameron was in her first year as coach, many of the key players were starting for the first time and, no matter what they did, it seemed impossible to lose. Average attendance was about 1,100 a game -- which means nearly 10 percent of the area's population was coming to watch women's basketball. For the national title game, the school hosted a viewing party in the largest lecture hall on campus. More than 350 people showed up to watch on the big screen. But there was no perfect ending. Michigan Tech lost to Clayton State 69-50.
"Don't get me wrong, last year was great, but the way it ended really hurt for a long time," said junior guard Sam Hoyt, a native of Arkansaw, Wis. "... You realize how special that moment is, to get that far, and we shared it. You just want to get back there, do it again and this time win it all. We'll see."
The standard the Huskies have set is incredibly high, with more than 20 commemorative banners hanging in the Student Development Complex gym. The combined banners from the men's basketball and women's volleyball programs don't equal a third of those hanging from the rafters for women's hoops.
The tight-knit Michigan Tech and Houghton communities know the players well, saying "Hi" when they're at the local Walmart or out for dinner at a restaurant. The conversations all seem to start the same way: "Hey, aren't you on the basketball team?"
The locals, nicknamed "Yoopers" in a play off the U.P., remember last season's 18-0 home mark and the excitement of the national title run. The Huskies are not perfect this season, including losing Jan. 19 at home to GLIAC leader Ferris State 68-65. Five other losses have come on the road, leading to questions from well-meaning folks about why the team hasn't won every game this season.
"It is kind of strange and funny when we see somebody and they ask about losing -- what are you supposed to say to those people?" said senior forward Lindsey Lindstrom, of Superior, Wis. "Do you say, 'Uh, sorry, yeah, we lost?' It happens. But it's not really a bad thing, because it shows how much people care and how much they know about us.
"I can't think of too many other places, especially our size, that get that for women's basketball. So I take it as a compliment that people care about us."
Bette Reed, of nearby Lake Linden, and her companion, Donald Lundin, of Hancock, enjoy coming to Michigan Tech games. They often take in women's and men's basketball and men's hockey in one afternoon and evening.
"It's so cold in the winter that we like to have something to do that's warm and fun," Reed said. "It's very exciting to watch these girls play basketball. We're all so proud of them. They're nice girls and play really hard. We like the band, too. It's a nice time out for us."
It would not be a full Michigan Tech experience without the pep band. It's hard to miss, the members clad in bumblebee-like yellow- and black-striped overalls. The outfits are a nod to the town's mining past but also a great way to stand out. The rest of their ensembles range from hunting camouflage chic to homemade quasi-fashions. Band members wear hats made of duct tape, attach stuffed animals to their heads with string or sport a Viking-style hat of horns. One band member even has a fishing pole attached to a hat, with a metal flask dangling as bait off its line.
The band has made a name for itself as one of the more clever and most trash-talking in college hockey. The same band plays at the women's games, providing an interesting mix of music and wit. Selections such as "Blame Canada" from the "South Park" movie, Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and the opening dissonant chords of the THX sound system from movie theaters coexist in a strange rotation. Some of the band's chants require reference material to figure out their meaning. They do it all with the goal of confusing opponents with their smarty-pants style.
On this day, Michigan Tech is thumping Lake Superior State, a strongly disliked cross-U.P. and GLIAC opponent. The blowout reaches 42-24, prompting the band to chant "Palindrome!" for the team's point totals being reverse images.
A few minutes later, it starts a long, orchestrated rap of different calculus terms, such as sigma, cos x and e to the x. The Michigan Tech band delivers a culture clash, on par with theoretical physicist Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" turning into a band geek and hoophead living in the U.P. And yes, Sheldon is regarded as a patron saint around these parts.
The pep band adds a fun and goofy element to the games, a complement to Michigan Tech's intense, grinding defensive style on the court.
"I wanted to be part of the women's game because I just love how they play -- they're really fun to watch," said student conductor Grant Cox, a senior from Utica, Mich., majoring in mechanical engineering. "Michigan Tech doesn't have a music department, so all 100 of us are here because we love to play as a hobby. We've got a lot of school spirit; we get a little crazy up here at times."
Study and shovel
Women are in the minority at Michigan Tech, as the undergraduate enrollment is about 70 percent male. Michigan Tech was founded in 1885 as an institution to train mining engineers. The university has grown to include other engineering disciplines, such as automotive, electrical and computer, along with environmental studies, physical sciences and business.
It's an academically rigorous school, which forces Cameron to be highly selective in recruiting. Her budget is slim, so she tends to stay local, looking in Michigan and Wisconsin for the right players to fit in with the Huskies. Michigan Tech is a small school, with 7,000 students on campus and only 65,000 graduates in 126 years.
"We are small, but we hope to get a bit bigger in the coming years, but we're never going to be as big as a Michigan or Minnesota. That's not us," said Tech's president, Glenn Mroz, an alum with two degrees in forestry. "We tend to get really enthusiastic about things, such as the women's basketball team, because we are such a small community. We're our own focus here."
The women's basketball team reflects Michigan Tech's academic propensity, with all 16 players on last season's team having at least a 3.0 grade-point average. Ten had a GPA better than 3.5, in majors such as biology, biomedical engineering, mathematics, exercise science and chemical engineering. The 2009-10 Huskies led Division II women's basketball with a 3.732 GPA.
Studying is taken very seriously, and the team's long bus rides come into play as an unofficial study hall. Because Michigan Tech is so remote, getting to the rest of the GLIAC can be a challenge. For example, playing at GLIAC rival Ashland, in mid-northern Ohio, requires a 12-hour bus ride -- one way.
Every trip outside the U.P. is an adventure shared with the men's basketball team and an even longer ordeal if the bus breaks down. There are some rules for the road: Snacks and drinks need to be stocked, somebody doing homework or sleeping should not be bothered, players with the same majors or classes sit together, upperclassmen get two seats, and the order of movies must alternate between the men's and women's team selections.
"I think we've all learned to be really disciplined with our time," said Hoyt, who carries a 3.93 GPA in mathematics. "You get on the bus, get settled and get down to work. It's really a good time to get a lot of work done, as you're definitely not going anywhere."
The long bus rides also work in Michigan Tech's favor, as opponents have to make a dreaded trip to Houghton once a season. The Huskies have heard opponents grumble about having to drive so far in the winter, only to be surrounded by deep snow and cold. Then, top that off with a loss to the Huskies.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is one of the snowiest places in the country, according to the National Weather Service, averaging about 100 inches of snow a winter -- sometimes up to 300. The days are short, too, because the area is so far north and on the fleeting edge of the Eastern time zone. Sundown comes just short of 5 p.m. in the dead of winter.
It's going to be cold, dark, snowy and gloomy at times, but conditions don't get in the way at Michigan Tech. The school annually hosts a Winter Carnival in February, with student organizations and residence halls spending a month constructing elaborate snow sculptures in the open spaces around campus.
This year's theme was "From all over the state, what makes Michigan great," bringing sculptures such as a life-size display of Ford vehicles, a two-story barn with a cider mill and apple orchard, and a replica of the Stanley Cup and an octopus to honor the Red Wings.
Outdoor fun isn't limited to carnival time. The university maintains cross-country and snow-shoeing paths, students can ski at the nearby downhill facility in Hancock, and snowmobiles routinely share university parking lots with cars.
"You're going to have winter no matter what, so you might as well enjoy it," Kasuboski said. "We're not locked up inside. The snow is not going to stop us, so we're having fun."
In essence, it all comes down to teamwork, on and off the court for the Huskies. Players build chemistry in those moments doing homework on the bus and returning from a long road trip at 3 a.m. to find their cars buried in a snowdrift.
The team digs each car out, and then everybody does more digging when they get to the parking lots at their shared apartments. It's just part of life in Houghton.
"It's actually not as bad as it sounds, as the snow can be really pretty," Cameron said. "You get out your shovel and start digging."
Again, this place is not for everybody.
But it's exactly where they want to be.