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It was a simple two-lettered sign, but it was the perfect way to symbolize an incredible circle of life for this basketball-loving family that spanned 69 years.
Before this season, the Munising High School boys basketball program’s best season was a state semifinal appearance in 1954, a team that Chuck Nebel played on.
The team hadn’t won a regional title since, so before a regional final game against Mackinaw City on March 15, a sign was placed on the wall saying, “The curse will be broken.”
Following a lopsided win over Mackinaw City, Munising had its first regional title since 1954, thanks in large part to the leading scorer on this year’s team...Kane Nebel, grandson of Chuck.
Together, Kane and Chuck then placed another sign with the word “is,” over the “will be” portion to celebrate the achievement.
The regional trophy was then handed to Chuck Nebel, who passed it on to Kane Nebel and the current team.
Grandfather and grandson. The same achievement for the same school 69 years apart.
But wait, this story gets even better.
Following a state quarterfinal win six days later, Munising advanced to the state’s final four at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, its first state semifinal appearance since 1954.
Munising is a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula right on Lake Superior that is best known for being home to what many believe is the state’s best tourist spot, the Pictured Rocks.
Seemingly the entire town made the roughly six-hour trek to East Lansing, the home of Michigan State, to support the team.
Chuck Nebel, 87, nestled into the stands with his wife Mary before a semifinal game against Marine City Cardinal Mooney on March 23 and reflected on what it was like when he was a player in 1954.
For one, the semifinals and finals weren’t played at the same site like they are today.
There was also another big difference that this year’s team didn’t have to deal with: A boat ride in order to get to the semifinal game in the Lower Peninsula.
“We had to use the ferry boat to get there because the (Mackinac) bridge wasn’t built yet,” Chuck Nebel said.
Chuck and Mary Nebel, and the rest of town of Munising then watched the Mustangs make history by advancing to their first ever state championship game with a semifinal win over Cardinal Mooney.
Kane Nebel led the way with 21 points, and the grandparents were obviously the proudest of all in the stands.
“Coming off the court like that and seeing them teary-eyed was something special,” Kane Nebel said.
But wait, it got more special.
The championship game
In the fourth quarter of the Division 4 state championship game (Michigan has four divisions for high school basketball, with Division 4 being the smallest) on the morning of March 25, Munising saw a six-point lead become a one-point deficit with more than three minutes to go against defending state champion Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian.
It appeared as if Tri-Unity Christian, which was seeking its sixth state title ever, was about to flash its championship experience and take over the game.
But it was Munising that showed the heart of a champion.
The Mustangs scored six straight points to take a five-point lead late, and held on from there to earn a 39-37 victory and its first ever state championship.
When the championship game ended, tears of joy flowed and chants of “UP Power!” serenaded throughout the arena as players and community members celebrated.
It capped off a historic year that won’t be forgotten by the community, and now also by others around the state who were captivated by the story of the Nebels.
Chuck Nebel said he frequently had simple advice for Kane throughout the season.
“I’ve told him several times to go have fun, play your game and it will be OK,” he said.
Kane Nebel and the rest of the Mustangs were more than OK.
They are champions, and it is something Kane Nebel can good-naturedly brag to his grandfather now that he’s the one in the family with a state championship.
Kane Nebel said grandpa won’t care, and will actually be happier than anyone to hear him talk about it.
“Absolutely,” Kane Nebel said. “It won’t matter. He won’t care (if I brag) at all.”
The circle of life indeed.