By Dan Hardenbrook
Mark the date down on your calendar: Monday, February 6, 2023. The night the Engadine Lady Eagles defeated the mighty giant that is St. Ignace girls’ basketball.
On that historic night, in a truly historic performance from senior Leah French, the Engadine girls went into St. Ignace and knocked off the Lady Saints in a classic, finishing 72-66 in overtime. French scored a record 54 points in the win, which will go down as one of the highest contributions in the history of Engadine Basketball and a night nobody will soon forget.
French picked the perfect night to play the game of her life. The showdown was part of the 2023 “Hooping for a Cure”, an event that raises money for the No Cancer Patient Left Behind program and the Oncology Department at Mackinac Straits Health System in St. Ignace. This was the 15th Annual Hooping for a Cure, which has raised over $300,000 in its existence. This year’s Hooping for a Cure game was expected to be one of the largest ever, with many ways to bring in funds for those affected by cancer. It was a picture-perfect tribute that turned into a picture-perfect night for the Lady Eagles.
French was playing in honor of her grandpa. Other teammates were playing for their family members. There was “a lot of heart out there,” French said.
And a lot of pride.
“I knew I really wanted to win that game. Mentally, I knew I was going to have to score a lot,” French said. “I was just really mentally prepared for that game.”
We’ve seen Leah French do amazing, almost impossible things before, but never like this. Not on this stage, not in front of this kind of crowd. Engadine has been to multiple MHSAA Final Fours, won District and Conference Championships. They’ve had a handful of players in the past 20 years score 1,000 career points, earn All UP and All State awards, and go down as some of the greatest the EUP has seen in recent memory.
But French’s performance on Monday night was something different. This was the girl that is so committed and so competitive that it’s “almost scary sometimes how bad she wants it,” according to Roger French, her coach and father.
Engadine knew they were taking on the gold standard of girls basketball – St. Ignace girls basketball is the measuring stick all other EUP teams seem to fall short of.
In the end, if this was David vs. Goliath, it was Leah French who was slinging the stones.
French had 54 points, was 14 of 21 shooting, and 7 for 11 on three pointers. She played all four quarters, and an overtime that seemed to last an eternity. And the Lady Eagles and their leader flew as high as they ever have.
“It wasn’t an easy game,” French said. “Our teammates — we did what we had to do.”
Hali Butkovich, who has come out of her shell the second half of the season, continued to hit big shots and grab key rebounds. Her free throws down the stretch that helped seal the deal.
Bryce Zdebski, never afraid to match up with anybody, battled for every rebound and loose ball she could get to down the stretch, limiting the Saints’ ability to bully the Lady Eagles.
Italian exchange student Elisa Carfora showed no fear in her first matchup against St. Ignace. Her height is a key component for the team. Carfora continues to gel with her new teammates and had another breakout performance.
Claire Oven contributed key minutes in the first half, as did Lilia Bigelow in the second to keep the game tight.
Then there’s the coach, Roger French, who had found ways to win and achieve every mark possible, except this one, until this week. After years of trying to crack the code to beat future Hall of Famers Doreen and Doug Ingalls, French found a way to lead his Lady Eagles to victory.
“He definitely was a big part of that,” his daughter said. “He had to do that all alone after the assistant coach got stuck in Munising on the way. That was a lot of pressure, to have to coach against St. Ignace all alone. He did really well keeping his cool.”
This wasn’t just a random night; St. Ignace has only lost at home six times since 2009, Leah French said. The Lady Saints have beat up on Class D/Division 4 teams for years, and simply don’t lose regular season games to small schools on their schedule. They’ve only lost twice to Class D U.P teams in the last seven seasons.
French said her team didn’t go “super crazy” after the win. “There were some hugs,” she said. “We were really excited. A lot of people were playing for someone special.”