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Rebels rally past rival Bombers

Moose Lake-Willow River’s Jared Witkowski shoots a free throw during Friday’s boys basketball game against Barnum. SpencerNynas/

Wes Cummins' family Christmas should be quite interesting next week.

Cummins, a 2005 Barnum graduate, has spent the last seven seasons as an assistant football coach at nearby rival Moose Lake-Willow River, and is now in his first season at the helm of the Rebels' boys basketball team.

Also a high school English teacher at Moose Lake, Cummins has embraced his role in Rebels' red, but some things never change for his father, Dale.

"He was sitting on the Barnum side with his Barnum windbreaker on," Cummins said with a chuckle following the Rebels' 51-42 victory over the Bombers last Friday in Moose Lake — the first win over their neighbors since 2012.

The night meant much to Cummins, who played four varsity seasons as a Bomber, including his senior season as a captain in 2004-2005. The now 29-year-old had returned to his alma mater after college to coach Barnum's junior high hoops program — overseen by longtime coach Rich Newman.

"It's always a big game, but this one was a little extra special to me," said Cummins.

"Rich is the reason why I became a teacher and a coach. The experiences I've had with him in the classroom and on the court are something I still hold on to as an adult."

Newman, a high school social studies teacher himself, called Cummins “gritty, determined and dependable” last week. He told the Duluth News Tribune of one of his most memorable performances when the then-senior Cummins carded 20 or so points when the Bombers' top scorer was silenced for a night … at Moose Lake. The eventual win boosted the Bombers to the top of the conference with fellow Polar Leaguers ML-WR and Esko.

Newman expects Cummins to carry on those some traits to the Rebels nowadays as he replaces former coach Neil Dickenson. Newman added that coaching football under the guidance of ML-WR coach Dave Louzek isn't bad for Cummins either.

"You can't ask for a better guy to learn from than that," Newman said.

Newman said he and Cummins have stayed in touch over the years, whether on the basketball court, football field — each have also gone up against each other on the gridiron as assistants — or just around the close communities along County Highway 61.

"Moose Lake's not that far away," Newman said. "And I wish nothing but the best of luck for him."

Still, Newman also hoped his team would have played better against its neighbors last week. Without point producers Chris Carlson and Hunter Fetters due to graduation, as well as basket-attacking point guard Drake Weets because of a torn ACL, the Bombers lack varsity experience.

That said, Barnum's ability to harass the hoop is limited. Last week alone, ML-WR shot 30 free throws to the Bombers' five.

"We gotta change that," Newman said. "It was a little wake-up call."

Nonetheless, Newman knows how to win. Despite their height deficiency — seemingly every winter — and post presence void, Barnum (1-2) is one never to count out.

"Honest to God, in the last 20 years I bet they've had one season that they didn't win 20 games," Cummins told the News Tribune last week.

"He teaches the kids to play basketball the right way," Cummins added. "It's what I'm trying to emulate here."

Senior Daniel Gilchrist gathered 14 points to pace Barnum last week, while junior Kyle Kielty collected nine before fouling out in a game the Bombers led 16-15 at the break, before being outscored 36-26 in the second half.

Newman added that senior tandem Colton Ziegler and Reece Parks will have to aid the team throughout the year, as his squad will continue to work hard day in and day out like he always preaches.

"They have to," said Newman.

Speaking of working hard, Moose Lake junior Ryan Barrett scored a career-best 15 points last week, as the 5-foot-10, 170-pound right-handed guard got the ball in the basket often because of his never-quitting motor.

"No matter what game we play in, he'll be the hardest worker on the court," Cummins said. "He's not overly athletic and won't wow anybody, but he'll outwork you. That's what I like about him."

Barrett, moving into a more advanced role this year with the departure of many seniors a season ago — including top scorer Rex Janke — said he felt confident in one of the team's biggest games on the schedule.

"Barnum has always been one of the most fun teams to play since I was little," he said of the two teams that will meet again Feb. 10 at Barnum. "I was just trying to play my role."

Also scoring for ML-WR (1-3) last week was senior speedster Isaac Riihiluoma with nine points, as well as junior trio Thomas Gulso, Ian Coil and Avery Kosloski with eight, eight and seven points, respectively.

That balanced spread of scoring was a nice sight for Cummins, who shared plenty of smiles afterward with his players, who wanted a victory for their new coach.

"It was a big win; everybody was having a good time," Barrett said. "We knew this would be a little personal for coach, but every game we are going to come to play. Coach told us to have fun with this one, but we needed to get right back at it Monday with practice."

That's not surprising coming from Cummins, a devoted coach humble about his opportunities. He initially applied to teach in Barnum, but didn't get the job. Moose Lake grabbed him up and he's been in Rebels' red ever since.

Despite walking to the wrong sideline when in his first season as an assistant football coach before a game against the Bombers seven years ago, Cummins has since gotten it right. And he's happy he has.

"I'm blessed," said Cummins, stressing the support of the surrounding communities and the influence it's had on his career. "I wouldn't want it any other way."

Dale Cummins may not budge, however. His son said that's OK, although he admitted last week that he is planning to buy his dad a Rebels sweatshirt to replace that Bombers windbreaker for the holidays.

"I'm sure it's fun over there for Christmas," Newman said with a laugh.