Cardinals challenge but can’t climb MIB’s mountain
MOUNTAIN IRON—As Taya and Teana Hakamaki headed for their team school bus following last Thursday's 66-61 loss to Mountain Iron-Buhl, the pair of Cromwell-Wright sisters each carried a bag of snow in hand.
The Cardinals nearly handed the state's top-ranked Rangers their first loss of the season and at home since 2012, but the hosts were just too much in the final of the annual MIB holiday girls basketball tournament last week.
The Hakamakis, visibly winded and sore from the two-day event featuring four of the state's most skilled small schools, were tired when giving interviews afterward on Thursday. And their alternative icing method was just a small sign of the valiant effort they and their teammates gave a crowded gymnasium last week.
Sure, it was a five-point loss, but the No. 1 Rangers (9-0) — who have qualified for the past six state tournaments and show no signs of slowing down — have been beating their foes by 38 points a night this winter. Their opening nine victories even include two against last year's Class A title game squads in Goodhue and Maranatha Christian. They beat them by a combined 59 points. And finally, it's virtually impossible to win in Mountain Iron. No one was has done that since North Woods did one January night five years ago.
Still, coach Jeff Gronner watched as his girls grinded out every point with mighty MIB.
Trailing by as many as 11 early on when an agitated Gronner took a timeout, he then saw his group close the gap to 33-29 by the half. His senior daughter, Bailey, buried a right-corner three-pointer to start the second frame. Shortly after, freshman Taya Hakamaki banked in a runner off the glass when fouled. She made her free throw and the fifth state-ranked Cardinals (8-1) led 49-48 with 9:21 remaining.
"That's the fight that those girls have," said Gronner.
Yet the Rangers had runs of their own. And the 15-3 spurt that followed couldn't have come at a better time for the home team. Their balanced surge — including six field goals from four different girls — was highlighted by senior Chelsea Mason's near 25-footer well beyond the arc. In fact, that triple originated near the Ranger floor logo amidst the volleyball lines.
"They are the number one team in the state for good reason," Gronner said.
Sitting at 2,526 points in her decorated career now, Mason is on her way to become the Northland's all-time leading scorer. The two-time defending Duluth News Tribune Player of the Year netted 20 more points last week. The senior is the one who makes the Rangers go, but don't tell coach Jeff Buffetta that. He's won 378 games in his career, and it's always been with a wealth of balanced athletes who are ready to score.
Their stats don't lie. While Mason makes things look easy, Buffetta's niece, senior Mya, does the same. She has 1,870 career points and was the one who nailed a right-wing three-pointer to give the Rangers their lead back for good at 51-49. Junior Mary Burke, meanwhile, recently scored her 1,000th point earlier this season and had a game-high 23 points against the Cardinals.
Burke, a 5-foot-10 forward, said the team wasn't afraid when trailing Cromwell-Wright last week. She spoke highly of a Cardinals club that they have known since grade school. Burke said the tiny town opponents have always been able to shoot and score.
"You can't lay off of them," said Burke, who noted she is friends with many of the Cardinals. "We've grown close — they know who we are and we know who they are. You just have to hand it to them. They're athletic and they compete."
While MIB won the event for a second year straight, also defeating third-place Menahga 86-53 on Wednesday's opening night, Cromwell-Wright had their own lopsided affair when cruising by fourth-place Clearbrook-Gonvick 89-57 to give a clear sense of who the top two clubs were.
"We have a lot of respect for Cromwell," added Buffetta.
Those words mean a lot for a man who's been to plenty of state tournaments, albeit mostly as a football coach. However, Gronner took his Cardinals to the state tournament last year for their first time since 2004.
And Cromwell-Wright has its own list of top scorers. Current senior Chelsea Swatek has scored 1,506 points in her career, including seven last week, while junior Teana Hakamaki notched her 1,000th the week before in Cherry. Teana tallied a team-best 19 against the Rangers, while Taya added 13. Bailey Gronner followed with 12 and is just 15 points shy of 1,000 as the team treks nearly five hours north to take on Class AA's top-rated Roseau Friday night near the Canadian border. Shaily Hakamaki — the cousin of Taya and Teana and one of four Hakamakis on the team — added nine as well on a roster full of strong engines.
Stats aside, Gronner was proud of how his team never quit last week. While Taya and Teana Hakamaki were bruised and battered from the two-day affair, Gronner noted both his daughter and Swatek were sick and under the weather.
Taya Hakamaki had the most dangerous call, however. As the seconds ticked down in the opening half last week, the 5-foot-5 sparkplug was crunched between two Ranger defenders before hitting the floor as the buzzer rang for half. While the officials didn't blow a single whistle on the hard play, Gronner was visibly upset, along with assistant coach Dave Foster and Cardinals fans. Hakamaki, however, in tears, came to her feet, went to the locker room and started the second half.
"It was sore," said Hakamaki, who suffers from a loose sacroiliac joint in her lower back. "But I just thought my team would need me on the floor. I couldn't miss. I needed to help my team."
"We have a lot of tough kids," chimed her older sibling, Teana. "We all have to be."
If that toughness continues, along with surely more victories, the Cardinals can expect to be playing back in Minneapolis come March. It's a place where they lost their opening quarterfinal last year, but now want to go a step or two farther. They believe they can.
"We just want to keep moving on," Teana said.
If that's the case, Cromwell-Wright may even run into MIB again. The two clash in Cromwell on Feb. 13 in a rematch that no basketball fan can miss, but Gronner has a different outlook.
"Our hope is to get them a third time in March," said Gronner. "We're right there with them."
"We wanted to win this one so bad," added Teana, her bag of melting snow still in hand. "They're a great team all around, but we are too. We're a good matchup."