Ironwood’s Pete Lewinski retires after more than 500 wins
Longtime Ironwood coach calls it a career
IRONWOOD – Three years after Pete Lewinski moved back home to Ironwood, both the girls and boys varsity coaching jobs opened up.
That was in 1992.
Some 28 years, seven conference coach of the year awards, eight district championships, six conference titles and two U.P. teams of the year later and Lewinski is calling it a career.
What a career it was.
He retires as the career win leader for his alma mater in both girls – with 173 when he stopped coaching them in 2006 – and in boys basketball with 341, finishing with a combined record of 514-413 at Ironwood.
“It’s time,” Lewinski said this week. “I had a certain feeling in my gut, it’s time to go. I’ve done this many years now and coached many teams. I just knew deep down it was time to go. I had enough. I did enough.”
Area basketball won’t be quite the same without Lewinski, who was a mainstay for almost three decades. While his fiery persona on the sidelines calmed a bit later in his career, Lewinski is the ultimate gentleman and his intricate preparation and superior knowledge of the game only improved over the years.
“I think what made him unique, it was tough love, it was no nonsense, everything was very detailed and specific,” said Michael Pawlak, who was one of Lewinski’s point guards and the 2005-06 U.P. Class ABC Player of the Year. “If you played hard and understood, he was great to play for. But that was Lew, kind of his way or the highway.”
Even his on-court rivals appreciated what he brought to the game.
“Our sport took a little bit of a hit on the Range by Pete hanging up his sneakers and the whistle,” said Gary Giancola, WJMS commentator and former Hurley coach who had many great battles with Lewinski. “He’s an icon in the whole Gogebic Range in the basketball world.”
Lewinski was a fine basketball player himself, earning a spot on the Great Northern all-conference team in 1974 as a senior for the Red Devils.
His coaching career started soon after, in the 1975-76 season, when good friend Gary Mariani asked him to help coach the Ironwood Catholic eighth grade boys basketball team while both played for the GCC Samsons.
They had a great player, Jim Sobolewski, who helped the team to a PMC championship and later became an all-state player at Ironwood.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1978, Lewinski was a physical education instructor at Camp Ojibway in Marenisco. That was only part time and his sister, whose husband was stationed in the army in El Paso, Texas, said they were
building schools left and right there.
He got a teaching job in Texas and worked his way through the ranks, first coaching junior high football and basketball and then junior varsity basketball at Burges High School for three seasons in the mid 80s.
The varsity coach there was Tony Harper, who now has more than 1,000 career wins.
“I learned so much from him in those three years,” Lewinski said. “I credit him with taking the chance on me at the high school level.”
Lewinski then got his first varsity job at Andress High School in El Paso. They qualified for the playoffs in two out of his three seasons and won a district title.
Then it was time to go home.
The varsity coaching positions weren’t open at the time, but he became Ironwood’s JV boys basketball and football coach.
Luckily his wife Slyvia didn’t get spooked by her first Upper Peninsula winter.
“I wanted to come home, I always wanted to teach and coach at my alma mater,”
Lewinski said. “I thank my wife, she had a tough time at first coming from Texas up here. I think we had a snowstorm on Halloween that year that closed the schools. She just sat staring out the window. She hadn’t experienced anything like that.”
In 1992, both Ironwood’s girls and boys varsity coaching positions became available.
“I don’t know if it’s fate or if I was just lucky to be there,” Lewinski said.
Lewinski taught a variety of social studies and physical education classes.
His first girls team, in the fall of 1992, won 17 games and took home U.P. Team of the Year honors. Lewinski was the U.P. Coach of the Year.
“They had talent, they were gym rats,” he said. “They were exceptional athletes and they worked hard.”
Ironwood made it back-to-back 17-win seasons in 1993. The win totals weren’t as impressive in 1994, but they got hot late in the season, upset Hancock 26-22 to win a district championship and then beat Rudyard in the regional semifinal before falling to Iron Mountain in the final.
“That team was a surprise for me,” Lewinski said.
Lewinski tallied his third 17-win season in 2002, which was highlighted by a triple overtime win over the top-ranked team in Michigan, Houghton, which had won 56 straight games, as Ironwood’s Kristen Ruppe outdueled Houghton’s Sveta Kovalenko in a battle of premier post players.
“That was one of the special games in my career that I’ll always remember,” Lewinski said. “What a game.”
But Houghton got revenge in the district tournament.
“Unfortunately when I look back at it, there was always one team in the West-PAC that stood in our way,” Lewinski said. “Mike Williams had some outstanding teams at Hancock and Julie Filpus had some outstanding Houghton girls teams. We could never get past that.
“…One regret as far as wins and losses, I always wanted to win a regional title, which I never did.”
Ruppe is in Ironwood’s sports hall of fame and Kovalenko went on to play at Marquette University.
He enjoyed coaching the girls. He only stopped when the girls season switched from fall to winter after the 2006 season and therefore coincided with the boys docket.
“The girls were very receptive,” Lewinski said. “They didn’t have the attitudes the boys have sometimes. I had a good run with the girls.”
Lewinski’s boys career started off well also. They went 18-5 and won the district tournament in 1993 and Ironwood won it again the next year.
The team that came along in the mid-2000s was pretty hard to beat in his career, though.
The Red Devils went 21-2 in 2005-06 and they swept the major awards in the U.P. Class C Team of the Year, ABC Player of Year (Pawlak) and Coach of the Year.
The Devils were upset by Negaunee in the regional semifinal.
“I still wish we would have been able to win that regional title that year in Marquette and gotten that trophy for him,” Pawlak said.
Not long after, Ironwood moved to the Indianhead Conference and they quickly established themselves as an annual contender.
Lewinski didn’t miss the snowstorms that were almost a sure thing every time they hit Military Hill on the way to West-PAC road games in the Copper Country.
Besides the better travel, he likes the basketball in the Indianhead Conference. While there are some very small, and sometimes uncompetitive teams, there are also a few that consistently have very good teams, he said.
Ironwood won three straight Indianhead championships from 2013 to 2015 and they won the district title in 2014 and 2015.
Adam Mackey, an All-U.P. Dream Team selection and Ironwood’s all-time leading scorer, scored 30 points in the first half of a regional semifinal win over Norway, breaking a 36-year regional game win drought for the Devils in 2014.
“I’ll always remember Adam in the regional semifinal game when he erupted,” Lewinski said. “He had great court sense like Pawlak. He knew the game from being raised around the game. Very smart player. Add that with talent and you’ve got a solid player there.”
Ironwood won another Indianhead title in 2018-19, going a perfect 16-0 in the conference and 19-1 overall before losing to eventual state runner-up Iron Mountain in the district opener.
Lewinski said himself that he calmed down on the sideline later in his career. In fact, he doesn’t remember the last time he received a technical foul.
But he does remember his favorite one. A referee he often saw in games in the Copper Country was working one of his games in Ewen and a couple of calls went against Ironwood right away.
“I yelled at him and said, ‘We’re not in the Copper Country anymore,'” Lewinski said. “And he immediately he gave me a technical.”
Lewinski appreciated his family allowing him to coach and be away from home so long, especially when he was the boys and girls coach. He also appreciates all the assistant coaches he had – “They were so good.” – Brian Ciesielczyk, Gordy Erickson, Tom Mott and Ben Schmandt for the boys and Dick Matrella, Dan Finco and Kari Jacquart on the girls side.
His favorite player over all of those years?
His son Pete in the class of 2002.