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Just getting to games a major challenge for Mackinac Island basketball team

By the time the Mackinac Island (Michigan) Lakers arrive for a road game, they’ve already experienced three forms of travel: snowmobiles, an ice-cutting ferry boat and a school bus. In February, when the winter winds freeze over the Straits of Mackinac and an “ice bridge” forms, a small plane flies the team to the Upper Peninsula mainland.

In good weather, travel to other high schools in Michigan’s six-team Northern Lights League can take hours and be fraught with cancellations — so much so that teams play on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, sleeping in classrooms or on the floor of the home team’s gym to avoid unnecessary travel.

“We cancel some games,” said Lakers coach Nathan Bullard, a Lafayette, Indiana, transplant who originally moved to the island for a summer job in college. “The logistics are hard — whether we can’t get off the island because of ice with the boats, or road conditions on the mainland.”

The island, which can attract 15,000 visitors a day in the summer, has a year-round population of 452. In the winter, the iconic horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are replaced by snowmobiles, the best form of transportation on an island that doesn’t allow cars. Many of the year-round residents, like Bullard, were once seasonal workers, but a few islanders have called Mackinac home for generations.

Will Gerard/For the Sun-Times

“I’m the eighth generation of my family to live on the island,” said senior forward Aaron Riggs, seated in a deserted classroom after a loss at Burt Township High School in Grand Marais.

“I was the only kindergartener until Gabe got here in first grade,” he added, gesturing to the only other senior in the school, Gabe Hepker, seated beside him.

This year, Mackinac Island has an enrollment of 33 students in grades 7-12. The school is so small that there isn’t a fourth grade simply because there are no children on the island born that year.

This low enrollment allows the Lakers to cite a Michigan High School Athletic Association rule that allows seventh- and eighth-graders to play varsity sports if the school has fewer than 50 students. This rule is commonly used by the rural and island-based teams in the NLL, Michigan’s smallest high school conference by enrollment but the largest by land area. The age range creates a de facto educational environment in the context of competitive sports.

“The seventh-graders are 12 years old, and we’re 17 or 18 and getting ready to go to college,” Riggs said. “As a senior, if it’s not close and the other team puts their seventh-graders in, there’s an understanding that the older players teach them in-game as well. It would be unfair if I slapped the ball away.”

The Lakers, as with the whole of Mackinac’s winter population, exist at the confluence of what is necessary and what is logistically possible. Consolidation of schools, for example, isn’t realistic for the island’s children because winter travel to the mainland is so tenuous, but public education must be provided. When islanders need vital supplies in the winter, they must either buy a plane ticket or snowmobile over the risky “ice bridge” to the mainland.

Faced with the seemingly impossible task of fulfilling a basketball schedule in the northern Michigan winter, the Lakers also straddle the line between the practicality of a traveling team and the vital need to provide extracurricular activities in isolated geography.

“You get to know everyone almost too well,” Riggs said with a chuckle. “When it’s winter and the boats stop running and the planes can’t fly, you’re really isolated on the island.”

“But that can be good,” Hepker added. “Once we become isolated, we become like family to each other.”

This chemistry may not lead to any state championships or records, but it illuminates a community that battles geography and the elements, all for a chance to play basketball.