O’Donnell helped rebuild Lions’ hoops program

HANCOCK – Most Upper Peninsula sports fans recognize Mike O’Donnell as the highly successful boys’ basketball coach at Negaunee High School.

But few may remember that O’Donnell, who has been voted as the UPSSA Class A-B-C Coach of the year four times in his nine-year tenure at Negaunee, was a key player when Finlandia University had a very successful season in 2000-01.

The Lions won the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national title that season under then-coach Art Van Damme.

“We had a pretty good team that season.” O’Donnell said recently. “We had a decent size and good speed, we were close to a Division II level team in talent.”

Jon Paul Katona and Bill Loeks, both around 6-foot-4, were steady forwards. And Finnish product Marcus Yliainen, who stood 7-1, added the dimension of being able to step out and hit the three-point shot.

Speedy Jacob Polfus and the 6-2 O’Donnell anchored a strong backcourt.

“It was the strongest team I had during my time at Finlandia,” Van Damme said a few years ago. “We also were able to peak at the right time in the postseason.”

The Blue and White were also involved in a couple of memorable games that season.

In an early season contest against Division II power Michigan Tech, FU ended up dropping a narrow 86-81 decision.

The Huskies were led that season by such standouts as Matt Cameron, J.T. Luginski, Jeremy Resmer and Keith Fogle.

MTU would post a 29-3 record the following season, were ranked the No. 1 team in their region, and hosted the regional tournament.

In that game, O’Donnell kept his team within striking distance by scoring 36 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and making three steals.

“He (O’Donnell) is a quality player,” Tech coach Kevin Luke said afterward. “He kept them in the game.”

In a later game that season, Finlandia spilled Northern Michigan University by a 77-72 score in a game played at Paavo Nurmi Gym before 1,500 fans. It was the school’s first victory over NMU since 1957.

“Beating Northern was a highlight,” O’Donnell recalled. “We grew up watching them (Wildcats) play and we knew all the players.”

Several players on that Finlandia team had Marquette County roots. Katona was a teammate of O’Donnell’s at Neganeee; Mark Nolan had played at Munising; Pete Flaska attended Ishpeming High; and Jake Suardini was a Gwinn High product.

Ironically, O’Donnell chose NMU after gaining All-U.P. honors in football and basketball at Negaunee High. His first choice was in football, but after his freshman season, he decided to concentrate strictly on basketball at Finlandia.

“The university offered what I was interested in academically and Art (Van Damme) told me I would play right away,” O’Donnell commented. “It worked out well.”

In winning the national title in Tampa, Fla., FU defeated St. Mary’s College of Detroit, defending champion Northwest Christian College and Southern Virginia University.

O’Donnell put together a stellar tourney and was named MVP after leading the Lions in scoring.

Finlandia would place third a year later in the event and Van Damme would leave after that.

An ACL injury sidelined O’Donnell the next season, but he was granted an extra year of eligibility. Charlie Kemppainen, who coached him in the final two years, said having O’Donnell “was like having a coach on the floor.”

“Mike is a very smart ballplayer,” Kemppainen noted.

“He has the knack of anticipating what’s going to happen out there.”

O’Donnell said coaching his alma mater has been a dream job.

“Negaunee is a basketball town the younger kids see the success we’ve had here in the past … and they want to duplicate it. We’ve had some very talented kids here.”

O’Donnell teaches fourth grade at Lakeview Elementary School in Negaunee. He resides in the city with his wife and two young daughters.