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Bombers and Cards compete, just like longtime coaches

Barnum senior Christopher Carlson (21) tries to block a shot from Cromwell-Wright senior Tyler Randall (22) during Tuesday night’s matchup between the Bombers and the Cardinals. Dan Saletel/ 1 / 2
Barnum senior Christopher Carlson cuts through Cromwell-Wright defenders on a drive to the net Tuesday. Dan Saletel/ 2 / 2

The score of Tuesday’s Polar League boys basketball game between Barnum and Cromwell-Wright, 65-38 in favor of the host Bombers, wasn’t actually the coolest number coming out of the county rivalry.

The Cardinals’ Bill Pocernich and Barnum’s Rich Newman have a combined 39 years of head coaching under their belts and it shows.

Pocernich, in now his 20th season at Cromwell-Wright, is a “true competitor,” said Newman, adding that his opponent’s Cardinals teams traditionally never give in no matter what athletes he has. At a small school, Pocernich coaches who he has — usually football players adjusting their legs — and he does it well.

Newman, meanwhile, is in his 19th year at his alma mater in Barnum, where he graduated in 1982. An assistant for 10 seasons prior to taking the helm, Newman is an old-school defensive coach known for holding teams to low numbers — which happened again Tuesday. Coaching several state tournament squads, Newman coaches unselfishness and teamwork. Looking at his track record, it’s quite effective.

On Tuesday, Pocernich’s mostly football-playing team hung tough early, but their 2-3 zone defense cracked when Newman’s outside shooters — shifty senior Chris Carlson, with a game-high 20 points, and sophomore Drake Weets, adding 16 — were often effective from beyond the 3-point arc.

Youthful kids like Weets, the younger cousin of former Cloquet graduate and current St. Scholastica player Nate Weets, are common throughout Newman’s lineup this season.

After all, they graduated eight seniors from last year’s club, including Rich’s do-it-all son Brandon, now also at CSS.

Many of the Bombers players are scoring their first varsity points.

“I remember when I scored my first time in varsity and I needed to call for a sub because I couldn’t catch my breath,” admitted Barnum’s 6-foot-5 senior center Hunter Fetters, who added 15 points Tuesday. “These are young, hard-working and hungry teammates. They’re handling this better than I am.”

Rich Newman noted that his Bombers (2-0) took care of the ball nicely Tuesday, while they — as usual — played good defense. He explained they’re still learning, but growing.

“As long as they work hard and the effort is there,” said Newman. “If they want to keep coming, that’s all you want. And you always have a chance to win if you work hard.”

Newman will likely continue coaching if that’s the case, as will Pocernich, whose Cardinals (1-1) were carried by senior Carter Karppinen’s 15 points Tuesday, but trailed 32-14 at halftime and lacked the energy Pocernich expected.

“Tonight wasn’t one of our better performances,” Pocernich said. “But it’s December 1st. And I like these guys. Everybody has to get better and we’re included in that.”

Including all the times Pocernich and Newman have met on the court, a rough estimate would be nearing 50 — or closer to 100 if counting summer and preseason exhibition games.

And over all that time, and all those games, they haven’t lost any respect for each other. After all, they’re quite alike.

While both are the obvious competitive basketball coach, each teaches at his respective high school: Newman in social studies and Pocernich in English. Each have hoops-rooted families with children who continue play.

“And we’re both getting old,” said Pocernich with a laugh Tuesday, now 43 and Newman 52.

Pocernich actually asked Newman to coach with him in an area all-star game last winter, so he could get to coach his son one last time before sending him to CSS. Newman was elated.

“I don’t know if there is another man I respect more,” said Newman of Pocernich. “There are great people in this world and he is one. I just can’t say enough. A class act all the way.”

“His teams always compete and play hard every night, and they play basketball the right way,” added Pocernich of Newman. “In coaching, it’s all about relationships and once we’re both done, we’ll still be able to continue ours together.”

“Two of the best minds in the Polar League,” Fetters said.


While Fetters is a sturdy 6-foot-5, the Bombers’ senior centerpiece is a far cry from the biggest man in the land.

That title goes to Esko’s Adam Trapp. At 7-2, he’s arguably the biggest player in the state. As just a sophomore, he might be the tallest 16-year-old in the country. He wears a size 20 shoe and custom orders his clothes from India.

At Fond du Lac Ojibwe, Justin Brown stands 6-7, and as the Ogichidaag often run the floor, their lengthy post can, too.

Speaking of length, there is plenty from around the arc this winter. Starting in Cloquet, lefty Jordan Diver and righty Brandon Hill use both sides of the floor, while in nearby Carlton, Tyler Ojibway can overwhelm foes if the center court gets too hot.

The range doesn’t stop there, as down in Moose Lake-Willow River, Rex Janke can jack shots from 30-plus feet.

While we’re talking about feet, Chris Carlson has some fast footsteps in Barnum, returning again, while teammate Colton Ziegler is the same as their star football running back.

That sport resonates well at South Ridge, as Reid Clark, Cole Watkins and Zach Johnson now move to hoops, while no one has a better football core than Cromwell-Wright with Zion Smith, Carter Karppinen, Alek Striowski and company.

Wrenshall cancelled its football season this fall, but that didn’t happen in basketball, despite the Wrens graduating likely a state-high 14 seniors last year. They now have zero seniors on the team.