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Senior-led Eskomos take a bow at state

Esko senior Selena Shady scores a layup for two of her team-high 11 points against New London-Spicer in Wednesday's Class AA quarterfinal game. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com1 / 3
Esko sophomore Bridget Yellin shoots over New London-Spicer's Morgan Swenson during Wednesday's Class AA quarterfinal game at Mariucci Arena. Yellin scored 10 points in the 48-43 loss. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com2 / 3
Esko senior Ava Gonsorowski shoots a jump shot for two points during Wednesday's Class AA quarterfinal game against New London-Spicer at Mariucci Arena. NLS edged the Eskomos 48-43. Gonsorowski scored seven points in the contest. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com3 / 3

MINNEAPOLIS — Starting five seniors nearly all winter long, Esko coach Scott Antonutti didn't waver from his everyday experienced lineup come last week's Class AA state girls basketball tournament.

In fact, in their two games in the Twin Cities alone, his 12th-graders amassed a total of 285 minutes played.

Yet, it was after playing their final minutes during a consolation semifinal setback at Concordia University in St. Paul last Thursday evening that Antonutti didn't remember all of his six seniors' gaudy stats on the court, but rather the memories they made off it.

"Those girls will be missed," Antonutti said of Ava Gonsorowski, Selena Shady, Karlie Kulas, Mandi Dincau, Mackenzie Holland and Emily Rish. "It's the biggest group of seniors I've ever had. We've had lots of good times."

That's saying a lot for Antonutti, who is in his ninth year with the Eskomos, having taken the school to the Section 7AA final in all seasons except his first. And this winter, Antonutti rode the bus back down south for the school's 12th overall state appearance and third in the past four years.

It was there, at the spacious Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis — home to the University of Minnesota men's hockey team — that Esko was edged 48-43 by the New London-Spicer Wildcats and coach Mike Dreier last Wednesday. Dreier, who is the winningest girls coach of all-time in Minnesota, now has a dizzying record of 892-166.

"That guy's a legend," said Antonutti, who is no slouch himself, having coached for 20 years now, including previously assisting teams in Fosston, Minn., when the Greyhounds won a string of Class A titles in 2000, 2001 and 2003. Antonutti even beat Dreier 39-35 in their previous 2014 meeting and was looking to go an unprecedented 2-for-2 against the sideline icon.

Dreier evened the series, however, but it wasn't without plenty of pushes by the pesky Eskomos. Shady centered the team with 11 points, and Gonsorowski and sophomore Bridget Yellin added 10 apiece. The five-point loss was even a one-possession game down to the final 17 seconds.

"To their credit, they just kept coming and coming and coming," said the 65-year-old Dreier, who has spent all 39 of his seasons at the small central Minnesota cooperative school, NLS. "We thought we were comfortable, but they'd always answer back. Thankfully, we were able to come out on top."

Dreier and the Wildcats went on to place fourth among the field, losing to eventual unbeaten champion Roseau along their path. Esko also played the 32-0 Rams in mid-February in a game they fell by just a mere 13 points and held Roseau to about a baker's dozen points under their season average.

They wish they could have said the same against NRHEG — short for the mouthful of towns named New Richland, Hartland, Ellendale and Geneva — last Thursday evening in the consolation round at Concordia, where the Eskomos watched their late lead slip into a 52-47 season-ending defeat.

Overcoming a two-point halftime deficit, Esko looked in control when sophomore Macy Sunnarborg sank one of her two 3-pointers to extend their advantage to 42-36 with 8:17 remaining. The Panthers, however, propelled on a 16-5 spurt to close it, en route to winning the consolation crown a day later.

Yellin led the Eskomos with 13 points, while Shady added 11, but it wasn't enough to slow the Panthers' extended family tree.

That's speaking of senior twin sisters Marnie and Maddie Wagner, who scored 15 and 14 points. The Wagner family name has been customary in the small communities near the Iowa border for quite some time now. While both Marnie and Maddie are the current NRHEG nucleus, their older sister Carlie is a standout at the University of Minnesota, now in her junior season.

Before suiting up for the Golden Gophers, Carlie Wagner provided the Panthers' back-to-back Class AA titles in 2013 and 2014 — featuring a 61-game winning streak — while she still owns six state tournament records to her name, including most points in a single game, 53. Her 3,982 career points — including a record 371 at the state tournament — rank second all-time in Minnesota annals.

Safe to say, her little siblings learned from arguably the best.

But it was the type of a schedule Esko had to endure all year long. Whether a family tree of scoring or the champs of one class, to the runners-up of another or the state's all-time winningest coach, the Eskomos saw it all. Actually, finishing the season 24-8, six of their eight losses came to clubs that qualified for and won games at the state tournament, including champion Roseau, runner-up Mountain Iron-Buhl, third-place Cromwell-Wright, fourth-place NLS, fifth-place NRHEG and local foe, Grand Rapids.

"We had a very tough schedule," said Antonutti in perhaps the understatement of the year. "But they're fighters and they're gritty," he added of the girls' mindset.

"We don't like to lose," Shady said outside of the Mariucci locker room last week.

Still, while the Eskomos are as competitive as teams come, they never hesitate to care for one another. Essentially, when you talk to all of their players, that's what makes them go. Gonsorowski, who has nearly 1,700 points to her name over four years on the varsity, said she and her classmates have had a ball in their hands together since second grade. And yes, while their skills have bettered each and every winter, so have their friendships with coaches and teammates alike.

"It's hard to think that I will never play with any of my teammates ever again," said Gonsorowski, who will continue her playing career next year at either Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., or the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "I've been with these same girls for so long and I'm just glad we all had the chance to go to the state tournament (for a third time) to cap off our senior year."

But giving Antonutti a long hug following their loss to NLS, that's what makes departing so difficult.

"I wouldn't have wanted to put on any other colors, or be on any other team," Gonsorowski continued. "It has been a blessing to play for Esko. It will be hard not getting to put those jerseys on again."

"Our team has spent countless hours in that uniform," added Shady. "My days here have been unforgettable."

As have been Antonutti's, after coming back to his alma mater upon graduation in 1990. Sure, he's been to every section title game since Gonsorowski and Co. were in the fourth grade, but it's been his players — those now and the ones before them — that have been so precious in his life.

Last week, Antonutti celebrated his 45th birthday at the Gonsorowski home with the entire team. Earlier this season, he and his wife, Julie, hosted all of the girls for their annual holiday celebration, including gifts, games and yes, egg bake. Many of Antonutti's players even babysat his children for him, with never any delay.

"It's probably the most special thing for me — seeing how the girls played with and gave attention to my kids," Antonutti said. "Whether they were playing 1-on-1 against them, babysitting them or calling them nicknames, those are the memories that are extra special.

"My kids will remember them forever," Antonutti said.

As will he.

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