Small Schools Basketball Playoff Preview
ESKO—Last year against Mora, Casey Staniger assisted on Esko’s section championship-clinching buzzer-beater.
The host Eskomos beat Two Harbors 70-23 Tuesday night to begin their Section 7AA boys basketball title defense, but it was without the standout Staniger, a 1,000-plus-point scorer, who was sidelined with lower back pain and aching spasms.
Staniger, a 6-foot-4 senior forward, said he’s battled back discomfort for several seasons, but noted some of his worst soreness was in last Saturday’s game against Cook County.
Tuesday evening, Staniger saw a chiropractor to stimulate, adjust and realign his spine, before getting home to see his teammates trounce the overmatched Agates.
“Hopefully I’ll be back Saturday,” said Staniger of the top-seeded Eskomos’ quarterfinal match with No. 4 Hinckley-Finlayson or No. 5 Aitkin at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” said senior teammate Kory Deadrick — the school’s all-time career scoring leader — who netted a game-high 26 points Tuesday. “He’s a great teammate. Not many guys can do the things that he does.”
If all things go well, a hopeful Staniger will return soon, only increasing Class AA No. 1 state-ranked Esko’s (23-3) chances of repeating as section champions and returning to the state tournament, where they placed fourth a season ago.
Esko Coach Mike Devney said if Staniger is sidelined longer than expected, he’s confident in his crew orchestrated by Deadrick, fellow 1,000-plus-point scoring senior Marc Peterson — who had 12 points Tuesday — and a deep bench.
“He’s day-to-day, but if Casey can’t play, we’re going to have to have other guys step up,” said Devney. “But these kids are competitive — the big stage doesn’t affect them.”
Staniger said if he has to miss Saturday, there’s no chance he would pass up a possible semifinal setting next Tuesday.
“We’ll see how it feels,” Staniger said, “but I’m not going to end my season — or really, my career — on the bench.”
“I look forward to playing with him again,” Deadrick added. “He’ll be ready to go. He wants to win. He’s a gamer.”
“He’s been a fighter his whole career,” Peterson said.
Barnum Coach Rich Newman said Tuesday the Eskomos are the favorites to repeat, but don’t look past the second-seeded Bombers (24-2) — in their first year of 7AA — a team which once held a 63-day unbeaten streak this season and could threaten the champs despite their 46-33 loss at Esko Dec. 6.
“That’d be a dream come true,” said Newman if his team could earn a rematch with their Polar League nemesis in next Thursday’s final at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth. “You just hope to continue going to practice each day and stay alive.”
Newman’s son, Brandon, with over 1,500 career points, and backcourt teammate Zac Carlson could keep Barnum alive, yet a potential meeting with neighboring third seed Moose Lake-Willow River (17-9) Saturday at Romano could be tight, especially with the Rebels’ inside presence of Ezra Szczyrbak, a Division I football lineman committed to Northern Iowa.
In Section 7A, No. 5 Wrenshall (12-11), and No. 6 Cromwell-Wright (7-17) are both lower seeds. The Cardinals could potentially play second-seeded South Ridge (20-3) — currently on a 13-game, 47-day winning streak — in a quarterfinal to watch.
Carlton (3-20) closed its season in Tuesday’s 66-50 play-in loss at McGregor, which means the senior-less Bulldogs eluded No. 1 Fond du Lac Ojibwe (20-3) for the season, after forfeiting to the Ogichidaa earlier in mid-January. The Ogichidaa play McGregor at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Feb. 27) in Esko.
No matter their opponent, expect FDL — which boasts the state’s highest-scoring average at 90.8 points per game behind Jordan Diver (25.5), Davonte Williamson (19.9) and Trevontae Brown (18.5) — to execute their usual fast-paced strategy.
“Get them tired, that’s the game plan,” said Ogichidaa Coach Earl Otis. “We don’t really know what the [No. 1] seed is, but we can’t be overconfident or overlook anyone. Last year in the bracket, the one, two, three and four seeds all lost.”