GIRLS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS
Entering the Section 7AA girls high school basketball playoffs, Esko came in as the No. 1 seed with a record of 21-6. After easily dispatching Aitkin 71-37 in the first round on Saturday and defeating International Falls 73-47 in the second round on Tuesday night, the Eskomos will play for the championship against Crosby-Ironton at 7 p.m. Friday at UMD's Romano Gym.
"Playoff time is always a great time of the year," said Esko coach Scott Antonutti. "It feels like there is always a new focus. I know I get really anxious and I think the girls do too."
Ava Gonsorowski led Esko's offense against Aitkin on Saturday with 27 points and was one of eight different players in the scoring column. Selena Shady also had a big day with 17 points versus the Gobblers.
"We had a great junior varsity season as well as the high school season, so I think we have some depth," Antonutti said. "It is nice to be able to rotate kids in and out, but at the same time, if a smaller group is playing with pretty good chemistry you don't want to disrupt that either."
It seemed on Saturday as if it didn't matter what group was on the floor as the Eskomos built an impressive 34-17 halftime lead and then outscored the Gobblers 37-20 in the second stanza.
Also scoring for the Eskomos were Karlie Kulas with eight points, Brigit Yellin with six, Mandy Dincau had five, Kristy DeMuth added four, Macy Sunnarborg had three points and Mac Holland recorded a free throw.
The lone double figure scorer for the Gobblers was Naomi Lane, who finished with 16 points.
"Against Aitkin I thought we played very well on defense," Antonutti said. "I think when you can stack a couple good trips (stops) on top of each other on the defensive end of the court, it helps with confidence at the offensive end."
It was more of the same on Tuesday with nine different players in the scoring column for the Eskomos in their 73-47 section semi-final win over International Falls. Leading the offense were Bridget Yellin and Selena Shady with 16 points and Ava Gonsorowski with 14 points.
"Against International Falls we thought they had a size advantage and we were concerned and focused on rebounding," Antonutti said. "Although they had a size advantage, we felt we had a speed and quickness advantage and we thought they would play a zone defense to slow down Gonsorowski, so we needed other kids to step up and hit some perimeter shots — and they did."
Esko marched out to an 11-point halftime lead and then outscored the Broncos by 15 points in the second half to win by a 36-point margin.
A big key for the Eskomos in the win was their ability to stay hot from behind the three-point line where they hit nine long-range bombs.
"Shady went 4-for-8 on threes and has really become a great perimeter threat for us," explained Antonutti. "Yellin started the game slow on the offensive end by missing a couple of shots, but we always try and stress the importance of persistence and having a short memory and she was able to do that and had a fantastic finish to the game."
Mandi Dincau and Karlie Kulas were both solid with nine points each for the Eskomos, while both Annika Wold and Macy Sunnarborg chipped in with three points. Mackenzie Holland scored two points and Eve Turner added a point.
"I feel really good about how we are playing right now," Antonutti said. "I think Mandi Dincau and Karlie Kulas have really stepped up their games at both ends of the court and have exceptional focus. Mac Holland has always played hard and her determination is inspirational. Macy Sunnarborg has been providing great minutes and, of course, Gonsorowski is something special and I think most teams are going to focus on how to stop her."
Now the Eskomos will set their sights on Crosby-Ironton, which escaped with a narrow two-point victory in its semi-final game against Proctor Tuesday night.
"Crosby-Ironton will play a lot of zone and have some good athletes," Antontti said. "They have a couple of kids who can hit outside shots and a nice-sized post player with good feet. We expect to see a lot of zone defense and will need to shoot the ball well to win the championship."
With the two sectional wins, Esko's record is now 23-6 on the season.
In other Section 7AA action, Barnum lost to Crosby Ironton 67-48 March 8.
In Section 7AAA, the Cloquet girls basketball team fell to Grand Rapids 68-35 Saturday. Grand Rapids will play Hermantown tonight at Duluth Denfeld for the section 7AAA championship and a trip to state.