ESKO -- Colliding heads with teammate Kole Zuidmulder earlier this season, Hermantown's Cade Zacharias stood outside the locker room Monday evening with the remnants of nine stitches above his left eye.
"That's how we practice, I guess," said Zacharais, who scored a team-high 21 points en route to Hermantown's 77-70 upset over Class AA's top-ranked Esko in a boys basketball win Monday in Esko. "We practice to be the toughest team."
That was surely the case Monday when Hermantown (2-0) used a 12-point run to erase an initial disadvantage, and only later go on a 12-1 spurt early in the game's second half.
Ahead 43-41 at halftime, Esko (1-1) quickly extended their lead, but only briefly, as their jump-shooting attack couldn't keep pace with Hermantown's drive-to-the-hoop efficiency.
"Walking into that locker room down at halftime, we were confident," said Zacharais, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, who was aided by Zuidmulder and Thomas Madison's 16 points each. "We knew we could come back and take it from them. It's all about toughness. That's how this team plays."
Zacharais said he and his classmates have faced Esko over the years and knew the game would be a grind, as did former five-year-assistant-turned-head-coach Joe Schmitz.
"We know playing Esko it's always going to be a good game down to the final whistle," said Schmitz, a very enthusiastic coach who displayed several fist pumps throughout the evening. "I'm just proud of our guys' effort."
In the losing effort, Esko's Kory Deadrick scored a game-leading 31 points, followed by Marc Peterson's 17 and Casey Staniger's 10. Yet, even the smooth-shooting senior trio's barrage of baskets couldn't surmount a lacking defense for a team that lost only one home game all of last season.
"That's as bad of defense I've seen us play on our home floor since I've been here," said 15th-year Coach Mike Devney. "They drove to the basket, made put-backs, got layups -- I'm just very disappointed. These guys have had a lot of success in their careers, but have had a little too much praise lately. Hopefully this is a
"We don't like losing," added Deadrick, who helped his teammates make it all the way to the state semifinals last March. "Hopefully we'll all come together and overcome this."
"Friday, we'll have to kick it in gear," said Peterson, as the Eskomos host Polar League rival Barnum in a must-see 7:15 p.m. matchup. "Or else it's going to be a long season."
Barnum (1-0) buried visiting Braham 71-48 last Tuesday evening, winning the ongoing mascot battle of the Bombers.
Carlton (0-2) can't find the win column yet, as the host Bulldogs fell Monday night to East Central 57-47.
Cloquet (2-0) clobbered both Hibbing and International Falls, winning by a combined 84 points.
Cromwell-Wright (0-1) couldn't keep up in their season opener and fell to Hill City 54-40 last Tuesday.
Fond du Lac Ojibwe (1-0) beat host Wrenshall 100-72 Monday, opening the season with an early rout.
Moose Lake-Willow River (0-1) ran into Class AA's top-rated Esko and an 82-65 loss last Tuesday in a home opener.
South Ridge (1-1) recently avenged an opening loss at Floodwood with a 74-28 mauling of McGregor last Tuesday.
Wrenshall (2-1) will be pesky this winter, but couldn't contain visitor Fond du Lac Ojibwe in a 100-72 loss Monday.
FDLTCC (1-4) finds its only win from a 124-72 rout of Red Lake Nation. The Thunder play again Friday and Saturday.