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Esko’s Coaches Classic continues to entertain

Esko junior Quinn Fischer scores two points over Northwestern's Alex Tecker during the Coaches Classic championship game Friday night. Fischer scored 11 points in the 60-35 Esko win. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com 1 / 3
Esko senior Karlie Kulas scores with a layup during Friday's Esko Sports Alliance Coaches Classic third place game against Eveleth-Gilbert. Esko on 77-46. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com 2 / 3
Esko sophomore Camden Berger scores with a jumper over Northwestern's Matthew Lindsay during Friday's Coaches Classic championship game. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com 3 / 3

ESKO—Mike Devney celebrated his 59th birthday Friday, but the longtime coach's Esko boys basketball team didn't sing to him.

"He doesn't like that kind of stuff," said 7-foot-3 center Adam Trapp with a chuckle.

Rather, the towering Trapp and his teammates let their performance sing loudest when the Eskomos eased by Northwestern 60-35, en route to their fourth consecutive Coaches Classic crown at the 37th annual home holiday tournament at Esko.

"It's kind of a gift to him for all of the hard work and coaching he does for us," said Trapp, who centered the way with 19 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks against the Tigers. "But like every game, we want to win for our coaches. They put in a ton of effort and work to get us ready."

It was also senior forward Isaak Blue's 18th birthday the same night.

And boy was it an evening for the Class AA fifth-ranked Eskomos (9-1). After mauling Mora in Thursday's opening round 75-49, their 26-point win was followed by a 25-point pounding of Northwestern, previously with only one loss. Using runs of 11-0, 17-0 and 10-0 throughout the night, Esko earned another title for its already decorated trophy case.

"Everything was firing for us," said Trapp who, along with his immense height, weighs a more muscular 235 pounds nowadays and sports a dizzying size 20 sneaker.

While Trapp tallied his customary double-double in the scorebook and on the glass, the tournament's most valuable player proved most pivotal when turning away would-be Tiger shots. Although he was officially credited half a dozen swats, the junior altered half a dozen more, as Northwestern was taken out of its normally aggressive game plan.

"It's a difference-maker," said Tigers coach David Gustafson of Trapp.

"He's a game-changer," added Devney. "If I had to go against 7-foot-3, I couldn't score at the rim — you can't. You'll get a few, but when he's around, teams are always thinking 'Where is he?'"

Still, the Eskomos fronted a well-rounded attack, as fellow All-Tournament team members Quinn Fischer and Blue added 11 and nine points, respectively. Cam Berger chipped in 10 points as well, for a team that has now won five straight.

"It's not just Adam, we’ve got a really good basketball team. I like these guys. They're a fun group to coach," Devney said. "I think these were our best games of the year."

This year, however, isn't your normal Polar League slate for the Eskomos. Devney scheduled games with annual state tournament teams, including Class AA's top-rated Caledonia — their only loss so far this season — along with the likes of St. Croix Lutheran, Annandale, Perham and St. Cloud Cathedral to name a few. Devney called their game calendar "the toughest in school history.”

That said, Esko hopes to use its credible competition to build on their playoff potential and hoist their fifth straight section crown come March. If they play well enough, perhaps even another state championship banner is doable, like the one they won in 2014 and which now hangs in their gym.

"It's big," Devney said of the large white banner. "And it's here every practice, every game and every day of phy-ed class that they come in."

Speaking of coming in, the Coaches Classic was again the area's largest holiday event. Over the course of three days, eight girls teams and four boys teams played in a total of 32 games on two courts throughout varsity and junior varsity brackets. Supported greatly by the Esko Sports Alliance, the tournament is a well-orchestrated show. Games are played constantly, officials are abundant — and well taken care of — while the announcer is always upbeat and teams, coaches and players provided a hospitable time.

Now almost four decades old, the Coaches Classic has earned its title. Held in honor of former Esko coach and educator Jack Johnson — who sadly passed away from cancer in 1985 — this tournament means much to its small community host.

"It's a long tradition," said Esko athletic director Chad Stoskopf, who served more than 30 hours at the school during the tournament. "It's been around a long time. It's part of the program."

Stoskopf, now in his 13th year as Esko’s athletic director, spent much of his time tending to box scores, emailing media and conversing with coaching staffs. Hermantown girls coach Beth Clark, originally of Cromwell, was departing with her team, but not without a firm handshake from Stoskopf.

Stoskopf was quick to note all of the help he has each year. Along with the Alliance, plenty of people are present throughout the event, including storekeepers, ticket attendants, gym supervisors and more. A hospitality room — decorated in Esko newspaper articles and trophies — welcomed all staff, coaches and officials. Plentifully stocked with meats, cheeses, crackers and beverages, it was nice hangout over the long days.

Yet it was when the power went out Friday morning that the tournament was really tested. An outage that affected hundreds of homes across Thomson Township, the high school went black around 11 a.m. and the outage lasted for about 30 minutes.

"As soon as I walked into the gym, the lights went out," said Barnum girls coach Dustin Collelo, holding the Bombers' consolation trophy after their 33-31 victory over Floodwood last Friday. "We just had our B team warm up in the dark."

Seriously. Collelo's JVers were shooting baskets in a dimly lit gym, with minimal power provided by a backup generator.

"Teams wanted to play under the emergency lights, but we didn't let them," Stoskopf said. "If everyone would have gotten out their cell phones out, we would have had lights, but what do you do? We just do the best we can."

Stoskopf was like an experienced veteran during the outage. Cool, calm and collected, he said they had contingency plans in place, if needed, while they shortened warm-ups by five minutes. If they had to, they would have opened an additional court if the schedule fell too far behind.

That didn't happen, and all 12 schools — Esko, Northwestern, Hinckley-Finlayson and Mora for the boys and Hermantown, Hibbing, Esko, Eveleth-Gilbert, Barnum, Floodwood, Mesabi East and North Woods for the girls — played on the event's final day, JV included.

A couple other nuggets from the last day include Floodwood's Mikayla Koivisto counting her 1,000th point against the Bombers. A year ago, Barnum's Emily Miletich and South Ridge's Krystal Karppinen did the same in the same event — in the same game.

"It's a good tournament," said Gustafson, who's been bringing his Northwestern boys across the border for the past five years now. "It'd be nice to not come home with the second-place trophy every year, but Esko has a great team and we're happy to play them."

Meanwhile, in the tournament's biggest upset, Hibbing shocked the Esko girls, ranked eighth in the Class AA polls, with a 56-49 semifinal win. The seven-point defeat was the first time the Eskomos (9-2) didn't win their own event in six seasons, while it was the first time Esko wasn't in the final in their nine years under coach Scott Antonutti.

"I know we all didn't get much sleep," said Antonutti of himself and his staff that night.

Antonutti credited Hibbing, however, as the Bluejackets held Esko to just 8-for-34 from the three-point arc using their 1-2-2 zone led on top by sophomore standout Abbey McDonald.

McDonald hails from a basketball family tree as tall as anyone's. Her father, Joel, scored several thousand points at Chisholm, playing for her grandfather, Bob, whose 1,012 wins over 59 years is a Minnesota prep record in any sport. A handful of her other relatives also coach high school and collegiately in the state.

"There's a lot of basketball going on there," said Antonutti. "You can tell she's spent lots of time with the ball in her hand."

Antonutti noted that McDonald made a pair of 24-footers to begin her game-high 22-point night in which Hibbing scored the game's opening 10 points.

"We really brought it all together," said McDonald, holding the tournament's runner-up trophy and All-Tournament team trophy in her arms during a postgame interview. "It was cool to come down here for our first time and get to the championship game. I don't think they were expecting that. It was very worth it."

While Hibbing lost to tournament MVP Jordyn Thomas and Hermantown 62-23 in running time, Esko also used a running clock when cruising by Eveleth-Gilbert 77-46 to claim third place in the eight-team event. Senior Ava Gonsorowski gathered 18 points en route to All-Tournament honors. Classmates Karlie Kulas and Selena Shady added 13 and 11 points in a game where Esko scored the first seven points.

Stats and scores aside, last Thursday was the Eskomos' annual holiday get-together at the Antonutti home in Esko. Gifts and games were plentiful, while Coach Antonutti said he prepared the annual breakfast egg bake.

And, despite their defeat to Hibbing, Antonutti isn't throwing away the tasty recipe.

"I'm sticking to it," Antonutti said with a chuckle. "And maybe we'll do some pancakes."

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