County teams embrace postseason
BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS
As a school-spirited student, Carlton senior Sam Macor and a handful of his buddies dressed up for last weekend's girls basketball playoff game to support their classmates from the sidelines in Hibbing.
Macor managed to get on a blue Lady Bulldogs jersey, but at 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, the uniform fit was fairly tight. Yet Macor couldn't care less, cheering on the small school loudly and proudly. Just like that jersey, there is a tight connection between Macor and his boys basketball teammates — many of the seniors having played together since their grade school days — which will be key as they enter the Section 7A playoffs this week.
The Bulldogs (21-5) have had their best season in recent memory, with much credit due to Macor and his classmates, seven seniors in all. Carlton — one of the two No. 1 seeds in the small school field — began its postseason push Wednesday when they faced ninth-seeded Hill City in Esko as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.
A victory would put them in Saturday's quarterfinals against either Wrenshall (14-12), seeded fourth, or No. 5 Fond du Lac Ojibwe (7-17) at Duluth's Romano Gymnasium. If the seeds hold further, the University of Minnesota-Duluth venue would see the Bulldogs in the semis next Tuesday and finals next Friday.
A string of four straight wins could bring the Bulldogs back to the state tournament for the first time since back-to-back trips in 1998 and 1999. The tiny town also advanced in the 1950s.
"We know the history of our basketball program pretty well and we'd like to see our team go down as one of those historic ones of Carlton," said Macor. "We've all been playing together a long time and have talked about this time of ours as seniors.
"We're excited to make a deep run," Macor continued. "But it's the playoffs. Anything can happen. Everybody is back to 0-0."
Second-year coach Jeswa Harris also isn't counting his eggs before they hatch. For the boisterous, passionate and positive-reinforcer from the sidelines, Harris is keeping their mindset simple here in March.
"We're taking it one game at a time," Harris said. "In basketball, anybody can win. Last year, I lost my first playoff game, so we're not looking past anybody."
Still, that hope circulates a team with 18 years of state drought.
"Why not us?" added Harris. "They have a crack at it."
That analogy was only backed up by the team's performance in Carlton last Tuesday, when the Bulldogs were only beaten by North Woods 74-65. That was a statement against the Grizzlies (25-1), the other top seed in 7A, and likely favorites averaging 80.7 points a night, while allowing just a measly 49.8.
"We gave them a good fight," said Macor. "We're excited about the opportunity to hopefully see them again."
If North Woods and Carlton clash in an encore, it'll be with a state bid on the line. And for this group of Bulldog seniors — including 1,000-point scorer Tyler Ojibway, as well as Macor, Waylon Lekander, Eric Soderstrom, Keijo Day, Nate Nilsen and Everett Silbernagel — it would only be a well-deserved opportunity.
"They've been what you'd ask seniors to be. They've showed leadership and dedication to this program and care about this school and all these guys," Harris said. "They're all remarkable young men. I couldn't ask for a better group of guys."
Elsewhere in 7A, eighth-seeded South Ridge (7-18) closed their season with a 65-63 loss to Hill City in Culver Monday, despite a 53-point combined effort between Nick Carlson and Christian Houle.
In 5A, No. 6 Cromwell-Wright (13-13) travels to Verndale tonight, Thursday, March 9, for a 7 p.m. contest.
Meanwhile in 7AA, Esko will look to continue its stranglehold atop the section, as they begin their push for a fifth consecutive crown when they host Aitkin tonight (Thursday, March 9) at 7 p.m.
However, that will be no small feat, according to coach Mike Devney, now in his 18th season with the Eskomos since last leading Carlton to their state trips in '98 and '99.
That's because top-seeded and sixth state-ranked Esko (23-3) has plenty of challengers. Fellow No. 1 Virginia, second seeds Crosby-Ironton and Proctor, and third-rated Hinckley-Finlayson will be challenging.
"It's never a given," said Devney, noting back in 2002 when his 27-0 squad was shocked and eliminated in the quarterfinals to rival Moose Lake-Willow River. "Anything can happen."
To top of those gaudy numbers, Crosby-Ironton — who fell to Esko in last year's final — got revenge when they edged the Eskomos 58-55 last Tuesday in overtime. The fourth state-ranked Rangers rallied from a 19-point deficit with 10 minutes to play. While Devney noted that his team turned the ball over often in defeat, he credited Crosby-Ironton and longtime coach David Galovich, who is soon nearing 700 career wins.
"Hopefully he's played all his cards," Devney told the Duluth News Tribune. "He's a hell of a coach."
Still, beating the Eskomos will be a tall task, as they're led by 7-foot-3, 235-pound center Adam Trapp, already a 1,000-point scorer and the school's career leader in blocked shots as just a junior.
He, along with fellow double-digit scoring teammate senior Isaak Blue and others, have never lost a section game in all their varsity time. They know nothing else but winning it all.
"Knock on wood," said Trapp with a chuckle. "Hopefully we can keep that going for us."
That's surely a possibility after what Devney dubbed as "the strongest schedule in school history" this winter.
That slate included games against some of the state's best in Class AA, including No. 2 Caledonia, No. 4 Crosby-Ironton and No. 5 St. Cloud Cathedral, not to mention matchups with state tournament regulars Annandale and St. Croix Lutheran.
And perhaps, if the Eskomos navigate their way to Minneapolis, another state banner could be in their cards like in 2014.
"This team is good enough to get there and make some noise," said Devney. "We've got a chance, but we have four games to win in this region against a good region all the way around."
Polar League foes Barnum (14-12) and Moose Lake-Willow River (15-11) also reside in 7AA, as the sixth-seeded Bombers play at Hinckley-Finlayson and fifth-seeded Rebels travel to Pequot Lakes tonight, Thursday, March 9, each at 7 p.m.
Looking at 7AAA, Cloquet (11-15) is seeded fifth and played at Lake Superior Conference rival and fourth-seeded Hermantown in a quarterfinal Wednesday at press time.
The Lumberjacks lost to the Hawks in their only two meetings this winter, but are perhaps the scariest team in the field, having won eight of their last 11 affairs as they enter the bracket.
Their latest result was perhaps the best indicator of how well they are playing. On Jan. 3, the Lumberjacks lost to Proctor by four points. Last Thursday they rolled by the Rails by 30.
"We're a 100-percent different team," said Cloquet coach Steve Battaglia, now in his 12th season. "We playing as good as we've played all year. We're peaking at the right time."
A win would put the Lumberjacks in Saturday's semis at the Hibbing Memorial Arena at 6 p.m. against likely top-seeded Grand Rapids (21-5).
"Rapids is clearly the odds-on favorite to win the section. They're senior-dominated and have three legit players," Battaglia said of the Thunderhawks. "But everybody loves that David and Goliath meeting. There are seven other people trying to upset them. And we'd love a crack."