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Small school girls basketball playoff preview

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With their busy schedules, and now living miles — and even separate states — apart, Esko’s Erika Shady and her older sister, Marisa, don’t see each other much these days.

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Yet, it’s in the coming days when Marisa, a current cross country and track and field star at South Dakota State University, will be visiting home hoping to watch her younger sibling achieve the state tournament berth she never got in basketball.

Esko has as good a chance as anyone in this week’s Section 7AA girls basketball tournament, as the Eskomos (21-5) enter the field as the favorites, having placed runner-up to Braham in each of the last four straight seasons.

The Shady sisters were involved with the program in all of those setbacks to the Braham Bombers — now in Section 5AA — but senior Erika said she and her teammates are ready to win.

“It’s been tough to get to the final and always lose, but we’re really determined to get to State,” she said, confidently. “Not just for us, but for all the former players and Esko teams.”

The last Esko girls team to qualify for State was in 2007, two years before current Coach Scott Antonutti began his tenure, despite bringing all but one of his teams to the section championship game.

Antonutti, whose Eskomos’ opening postseason game was Wednesday hosting Pine City as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press, said earlier in the week that his team is confident knowing a state tournament chance is within grasp.

“I think they believe it’s an attainable goal,” he said.

Esko found the goal often in last Thursday’s 52-45 victory at Barnum, notably in the second half, as the Eskomos erased a 23-21 halftime deficit to win their 43rd consecutive Polar League contest and fourth straight conference crown.

To win the section’s ultimate crown next week, the reloaded Eskomos — unbeaten in their class level this season — will revolve around a well-balanced  lineup, led by freshmen duo Ava Gonsorowski and Judy Wagemaker, along with junior Ashley Bergerson and the four-sport standout in Shady.

“We have a number of good athletes that are conditioned, can run and defend,” Antonutti said of his poised team. “But in the same breath, we’re going to have to play awfully well.”

If so, a viable state ticket could be stamped next Saturday.

“We all play for each other,” Wagemaker said.

Or for Marisa Shady, come home to cheer on one another.

“It would be the only game she could make,” Erika said.

AREA PREVIEW:

Second-seeded Barnum (16-8) could make things tough for the section, as the newcomers — from Section 7A — are a senior-laden squad centered by 6-foot-2 Daron Mainville.

Bombers Coach Katie Moench said her team was without eighth-grade scorer Emily Miletich against Esko due to a concussion, noting they’d relish a potential March rematch.

“We definitely would like another shot at them,” Moench said of the Eskomos, sitting atop the opposite side of the 16-team bracket. “Hopefully we can string together a few wins.”

Moose Lake-Willow River (18-7) didn’t win either of their two meetings with Barnum this winter, but if they get by Two Harbors, the third-seeded Rebels would want to change that in a potential quarterfinal on Saturday at Duluth Denfeld.

“I talked to the girls today — we all want Barnum,” said ML-WR Coach Joe Adamczak Monday, noting junior Adri Jusczak leads their injury-nagged team in scoring. “We’re down to nine varsity girls, but I think we can beat anybody.”

No. 7 Fond du Lac Ojibwe (12-5) and No. 9 Wrenshall (3-22) beat first-round opponents Tuesday, joining No. 6 Carlton (6-18) and No. 4 South Ridge (13-12) in Thursday’s Section 7A second round with No. 2 Cromwell-Wright.

The Cardinals (14-9), scoring 63.6 points per game, could possibly re-meet with top-seeded and state-ranked No. 4 Mountain Iron-Buhl in a semifinal next week if seeds hold.

“But that’s the great thing about basketball,” Cromwell-Wright Coach Jeff Gronner said, “one off night for them and one good shooting night by us — and upsets can happen.”

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