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Esko boys edge Annandale, girls fall

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DULUTH—Esko’s 7-foot-3 Adam Trapp tallied a game-high 19 points during Monday’s game against Annandale, teammate Quinn Fischer added 15, yet it was Ryan Pantsar who produced 10 second-half points to edge the No. 7 Eskomos over the third-ranked Cardinals 62-59 in the headline game of the 4th annual Martin Luther King Day Classic at Duluth’s Romano Gymnasium.

No one was more surprised than Pantsar by his clutch performance in the game of Class AA powers, after the 6-foot-1, 150-pounder got sick to his stomach but following pre-game warm-ups.

The culprit?

“Probably the [sandwich] I ate,” Pantsar said afterward.

Although his footlong sub sandwich choice wasn’t the best, Pantsar’s play after halftime certainly was.

While the Eskomos (13-1) earned a slim 37-34 advantage at the break, Pantsar’s corner 3-pointer broke a 45-all tie to give Esko the lead for good. Moments after, his floater pushed it to 50-45, while later in the frame, he added an opposite corner triple and an acrobatic layup to widen the gap to 56-48.

Within minutes, Pantsar poured in 10 of Esko’s 11 points. Not bad for a customary starter going on an empty stomach.

“I just tried to do the best I could with how I was feeling,” said Pantsar, who approached his coach, Mike Devney, at halftime to let him know he was good to go. “He told me he’d give me two minutes.”

By his count, Pantsar played over the last 10.

“I wish I could have played the whole game, but I guess a half is better than nothing,” Pantsar said.

“He really turned the game around,” Devney added. “He gave us that spark — a real lift.”

Fischer, a junior, wasn’t surprised by his classmate’s determination.

“He’s always been one to be able to push through to get it done,” he said of Pantsar. “He pulled it together and made some big threes and tough shots for us.”

Yet, just as one of the state’s top program’s would do, the Cardinals (9-2) didn’t cave, especially under the guidance of their well-respected coach Don “Skip” Dolan, now in his 81st varsity season having coached basketball, football and softball at the small central Minnesota school since 1981.

Dolan watched as his team had an abundance of late chances. Nick Bieniek, who had a team-best 17 points, nailed his fifth 3-pointer to make it 61-58 with under a minute to go, while A.J. Hinz nearly heaved in a corner 3-pointer while being fouled in the process.

Hinz’s shot didn’t go in, nor did many of the free throws that followed, as the buzzer later sounded.

Monday’s game was just another between these two school, 157 miles apart, who often play one another in Minneapolis come March. This tandem squared off last winter, in fact, with Annandale winning that state quarterfinal 52-40. The Cardinals also won when they faced off in 2013 for third place, while Esko returned the favor in 2014 when they claimed the state title.

“We usually play once a year,” said Dolan, still on their bus ride back home after Monday’s Martin Luther King Classic basketball tournament at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “It’s quite the journey, but it’s good. They’re a good program.”

That respect goes each direction.

“We both got good programs and we both got good players,” added Devney. “I’m just happy they came all the way to Duluth to play us.”

In fact, the Annandale girls did the same, facing off with the 10th-rated Eskomos prior to the boys game Monday. The Cardinals evened the daily series with a 65-53 come-from-behind victory.

Annandale trailed 31-30 at the break, but behind Kamry D’Heilly and Allie Spaulding’s 18 points apiece — as well as an irritating 2-3 zone defense — the Cardinals counted a 13-point second-half advantage to pull away by a dozen.

Annandale’s size was also in their favor.

“They were big,” said Esko coach Scott Antonutti of 6-footers D’Heilly, Spaulding and Hannah Purcell, who all scored 16 points each.

Ava Gonsorowski led the Eskomos (11-4) with 17 points and was followed by Selena Shady’s 11. According to Antonutti, his girls’ scoring attempts were plentiful, but just didn’t fall.

“We got lots of shots off, but we just didn’t shoot very well,” he said, noting they took 60 field goals, but were a dismal 7-of-30 beyond the arc.

Minus Gonsorowski, the Eskomos were 3-for-21 from 3-point land — or 14 percent.

“I like the shots we got off, but if they don’t go in, you’re not going to win,” said Antonutti.

The Esko-Annandale affairs were amidst the middle of the seven-game day at UMD, organized by Breakdown Sports in Minnesota. Event Coordinator Dean Kesler was again on hand — arriving at 7 a.m. Monday and leaving near 10 p.m. — but he said while the almost 15-hour day gets long, it’s well worth it.

He noted he and his wife, Christine, stayed at the Canal Park Lodge, with plenty of great views.

“We enjoy coming up here,” said Kesler, who now lives and teaches in St. Cloud after playing for St. Cloud State University in his college days. “This is a fantastic place.”

Kesler said the crowds were a little slim on the holiday, but they hope to continue the event in the coming future.

After all, there was much more than just games and results to record Monday.

Prior to the start of their game, Devney gave Dolan a brand-new blue Esko jersey with the No. 13 on it, in honor of Dolan’s grandson, Henry, an 8-month-old currently battling heart defects down at a University of Minnesota hospital.

Devney’s boys also donned red and black rubber wristbands during pre-game warm-ups to show their support for Henry, whose father — Dolan’s son — wore No. 13 when he used to play for him at Annandale.

Henry has already had one major surgical procedure and a heart transplant, Dolan said.

“And he’s still fighting and battling,” said Dolan, who noted his Cardinals are dedicating their season to him.

Devney’s boys got the idea for the jersey and wristbands from Sandy and Todd Rengo, who helped organize the shipment of rubber bracelets from some Annandale parents without Dolan’s knowledge.

The surprise and support seen on Monday will be something Dolan won’t forget from their pals up north.

“It was pretty special. Just real classy,” said Dolan, whose wife, Cathy, was also in attendance Monday. “I’ll cherish it forever.”

“You never know when this kind of stuff is going to happen to you or your family. I feel for Skip,” Devney added. “There are a lot more important things than basketball.”

And if they meet again come March in Minneapolis, you can bet those bracelets will be back on.

“We’ll be keeping his grandson in our thoughts and prayers,” Pantsar said.

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