Basketball Preview: ’Jacks jump into formPine Journal sports writer Tyler Korby previews local high school boys basketball teams with a longer focus on Cloquet.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
CLOQUET – Stomaching another defeat to Grand Rapids as he walked out of the Cloquet gymnasium Tuesday night, Lumberjacks boys basketball coach Steve Battaglia wasn’t happy.
Perhaps that’s because the Thunderhawks thwarted Cloquet 59-46 before a crowded audience to watch the season begin for both section rivals. Grand Rapids trailed 2-0 after the game’s first possession on a goaltending call, but not for long behind Division I-recruit Alex Illikainen’s game-high 30 points.
“He’s one of the best players in the state,” Battaglia said of Illikainen, a sturdy 6-foot-9 sophomore center. “He’s the real deal.”
Grand Rapids deals most opponents losses in this area, as the Thunderhawks have won every Section 7AAA title since 2008. Ranked 10th in the state polls, Grand Rapids looks good again.
“They’re the cream of the crop,” Battaglia said. “They’re not a shoo-in this year, but someone still has to take the title from them.”
Losers to the Thunderhawks in the 2009 and 2010 finals, Cloquet is among several contenders for the crown this winter.
Revolving around center Adam Laine, fellow starters Dillon Johnson and Nate Weets also return to a team that finished 9-18 with a young cast a year ago. Another year experienced, the Lumberjacks are deeper than in years past, sporting veteran Maxx Brenner, along with Jake Bushey, Zach Gerlach and the addition of lightning-fast reserve Marquez Evans, who moved from St. Paul to Cloquet this year.
Laine was the team’s leading scorer a season ago, when the 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior center was seemingly Cloquet’s only threat.
Battaglia said his team is also more balanced than in previous seasons, having the ability to use multidimensional styles of play, whether shooting outside, scoring inside and using their defense, too.
“Last year, we couldn’t score,” he said. “This year we’ve got guys who can knock it down from the perimeter, guys who can take it to the hole. We like to run through ‘Lainer’, but we can go inside-out.”
“We feel really confident,” Laine said. “We have shooters, we have posts and we have people who can dribble. We have a solid group of guys playing this year.”
Laine led Cloquet Tuesday in the team’s opener with 20 points, 18 of those coming in a second half when the Lumberjacks had opportunities.
“We feel like we can play with anyone in our section,” added Brenner, a 5-foot-11, 160-pound guard in his third year on the varsity roster. “We’re fired up. We feel like we can contend.”
Brenner noted his father, Tom – who coached Cloquet to state tournaments in 1997, 1998 and 2000 – directed the Lumberjacks’ Amateur Athletic Union team this past summer in the Twin Cities.
That, plus additional gym time and extra hours in the weight room, has the team in good standing, Brenner explained.
“We’re putting in the time,” he said. “A couple of guys put up 10,000 shots this summer. It’s been a big group effort, going hard.”
In his eighth-season coaching at Cloquet, Battaglia agreed.
“These guys are doing all the things you have to do,” said Battaglia, 32, who played on the Lumberjacks’ 1997 and 1998 state teams and scored 1,667 points in his own high school career. “They’ve put in tons of time during the offseason. The commitment is there.”
Brenner and Laine are two of eight juniors for the Lumberjacks, many of whom have been playing together since the fourth grade.
“These kids have played together for a long time,” said Battaglia.
“We play together really well,” Brenner added. “We know when guys are moving. We trust each other. We’re just tight-knit.”
Barnum – Rich Newman enters his 16th season with the Bombers, returning yet another sharp-shooting squad from last year’s Section 5A runners-up. Seeking to replace top-scoring sensation Jake Naslund, Barnum will revolve around Daniel Warpula and Rich’s son, Brandon Newman, in the backcourt. Spark plug guard Rodney Mullen Jr. has good range too.
Carlton – Adam Bailey embarks on his second year with the Bulldogs, welcoming back an experienced cast of players. Nine seniors, including veteran guard Erik Adams, will look to improve nine-win Carlton. Lane Empson, Mark Lehet, Spencer Walton, Kyle Gunderson and Zach Veno all return quality minutes.
Cromwell-Wright – Bill Pocernich prepares for his 19th season, as the Cardinals could again be a pesky opponent. Looking to pick up for graduated top scorers Jake Ramberg and Austin Johnson, Cromwell-Wright will be guided by Jared Hutar at the point, while cousins Alex and Tyler Hakamaki can also contribute for the Cardinals.
Esko – Mike Devney darts into his 14th season at Esko, returning all but one starter from last year’s Section 7AA runner-up team. Despite graduating top-scorer Jackson Lindquist, the Eskomos will again be jolted by juniors Marc Peterson, Kory Deadrick and Casey Staniger from outside. Seniors Bobby Wright, at center, and forward Ben Hanson will create havoc inside, while Barnum transfer Jaxson Turner, a freshman, will see time at guard for Esko.
Fond du Lac Ojibwe – Earl Otis opens his second year at the small tribal school, as the Ogichidaa will look to compete without former centerpiece, Kello Brown. FDL, a Section 7A semifinalist the past two years, returns varsity veterans Bruce Martineau and Trevontae Brown, while Devyn Dupuis will also help on the court.
Moose Lake-Willow River – Neil Dickenson starts on his fourth year with Rebels, seeking to up their 15-win season a year ago. After graduating lead scorers Caleb Koecher and Taylor Mattison, ML-WR will center on Jake Disterhaupt and Tony Adamczak at guard, while Isaac Coil can be a threat inside.
South Ridge – Carl Grussendorf groups together the Panthers for his second season at the Culver-based school. After graduating heavy scorer Dan Wood, South Ridge will revolve around experienced Robby McQuade inside and versatile Dominic Janke. Point guard Kody Karppinen can also score, while Bill Redding showcases his speed.
Wrenshall – Joel Swanson started his 19th season with a 53-37 rival victory over Carlton at home Monday evening. Already equaling their one-win total from last year, the Wrens are much improved with a ream of returnees. High-scorer Pat Gustafson is back again, along with fellow seniors Matt O’Connor and Derek Duncan.