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Panthers, Ogichidaag set for postseason

South Ridge's Jake Carlson shoots a three-pointer versus Esko in January. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com

South Ridge senior Zach Johnson rolled his ankle against Mountain Iron-Buhl, but he surely won’t let it keep him sidelined for the upcoming Section 7A boys basketball playoffs this week.

Injuries have been common this winter for South Ridge, but clearly haven’t hampered the top-seeded Panthers’ (15-9) production, as they enter the postseason tonight (Thursday, Feb. 25) against Hill City in Esko, poised to make a push at a potential section title.

Johnson knows a thing or two about section titles. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound, drive-first right-handed guard has played in five section final tilts — including football, basketball and baseball — his only state trip coming in football his freshman season as the reserve for the Panthers.

A starter in his final prep season, Johnson and fellow seniors Jake Carlson, Spencer Stroschein, Cole Watkins, Trey Karppinen, Reid Clark, along with junior Christian Houle, sophomore Nick Carlson and teammates all dream of a state appearance. For South Ridge, it would be a first in boys basketball since the creation of their school from AlBrook. They went to the 2014 section final, but lost.

“We talk about making it out of our section almost every day at practice,” said Johnson earlier this week, noting he hangs his four red and one blue section medals on a shelf in his bedroom as motivation to get another one. “We feel our team has what it takes to get there — I believe that we can.

“But you can never count anybody out,” he quickly added.

First-year coach Nate Shulstad, 28, would agree, as the former Panther junior high coach and assistant under former coach Carl Grussendorf said their section is “wide open.”

Fellow No. 1-ranked North Woods (23-2) is the likely favorite, but had a season split with the Panthers. No. 2 Mountain Iron-Buhl (20-6) is also good and No. 4 Fond du Lac Ojibwe are the two-time champs.

“We’re taking it one game at a time,” said Shulstad. “Any of these teams have a shot and I’d like to think we do, too.”

The Ogichidaag (12-13) may look beatable, but lack no confidence in a young group led by seniors Lester Williamson and the biggest player in the section — 6-foot-7 Justin Brown.

“We’re going to feed him the ball,” Coach Earl Otis said.

No. 6 Carlton (10-16) and No. 10 Wrenshall (0-24) are also in Section 7A, but Wrenshall was defeated by No. 7 Northland 70-40 Tuesday night in the play-in round.

No. 6 Cromwell-Wright (14-10) is in Section 5A, where they play at host Verndale tonight — two hours west of home.

“It’s weird,” Cards coach Bill Pocernich said of his small-school Polar League champs, “but we’re better on the road.”

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