7A BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS
Tyler Ojibway and his classmates have been playing basketball together since their first days of kindergarten in Carlton. Now a long 6-foot-2 standout, Ojibway leads the closely-knit pack of Bulldogs. The gifted right-hander even scored his 1,000th point earlier this winter in a game against McGregor.
But it was the game scene with Mountain Iron-Buhl Tuesday night in the Section 7A semifinals at Duluth's Romano Gymnasium that he'll perhaps remember most. That's because it was the last in a prep career that likely has over a 1,000 reasons why he already misses it.
"It was hard losing that one," said Ojibway, admittedly teary-eyed in the locker room afterward. "These seniors are like brothers to me. I consider them like family. You can't get much closer than we all are."
Top-seeded Carlton (23-6) was close early on Tuesday, but the Rangers' 41-point tandem of Joe Buffetta and Jaylon Holmes, along with a sizeable height advantage, was too much in a 75-51 season-ending setback on the campus of Minnesota-Duluth.
The Bulldogs, seeking their first trip to the section final in recent memory, trailed just 35-29 at halftime. Yet, surprisingly, it was all MIB after that, as the second-seeded Rangers rolled to a 40-22 advantage in the second frame to take all of the drama out of this one.
Carlton senior Waylon Lekander paced the Bulldogs with 18 points, followed by Ojibway's 14.
MIB (25-4), meanwhile, meets No. 1 North Woods (28-1) in Friday's final at Romano. The Grizzlies have beaten the Rangers twice this winter, but don't forget MIB is the reigning champ and topped North Woods in last year's title tango.
"Hats off to MIB," Carlton coach Jeswa Harris said. "That's an experienced team. And they're scrappy."
That's much how the Bulldogs have looked this season, surging to a 23-win campaign — again the most in recent years. Much of that was done by a contingent of seven seniors, including Ojibway, Lekander and Sam Macor, Matt Hey, Eric Soderstrom, Keijo Day and Everett Silbernagel — many of whom have been playing together since their days at South Terrace Elementary.
Ojibway, in his fourth year on the varsity, said their goal was to make their small school's first state tournament appearance since back-to-back trips in 1998 and 1999, but despite coming up short, they have nothing to hang their heads about.
After all, 23 wins, 1,000 points and one victory shy of the section final — what senior wouldn't take those results in a final high school season?
"It's been the best basketball season I've ever played — it was just amazing," said Ojibway. "We are all proud. We wouldn't have wanted anything else."
"It was a tough loss, it still hasn't sunk in," added Soderstrom, noting it was difficult to take his blue and white jersey off for a final time Tuesday. "But I think we handled it well."
That was evident in their bus ride home Tuesday night, one Soderstrom said "wasn't quiet by any means."
"We took the positives out of it," Soderstrom continued. "We seniors have been playing ball together our whole lives just growing up. I'll have countless memories."
Soderstrom and Co.'s final victory came just last Saturday, March 11, when Carlton cruised by Fond du Lac Ojibwe 74-50 at Romano. The 24-point win was an important one for the Bulldogs, who fell to the Ogichidaag 70-62 on Jan. 9 in a game played at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet.
"They beat us to the punch and walked all over us," recalled Harris about round one with FDL. "But we made sure it didn't happen this time. We were ready."
Against the Ogichidaag (8-18), Macor totaled 19 points, followed by Ojibway and Lekander with 15 apiece.
FDL, meanwhile, was paced by sophomore Evan Butcher's game-best 20 points, while classmate Avery Misquadace followed with 10. Coach Earl Otis added that the absence of fellow sophomore George LaPrairie hurt last weekend. LaPrairie was averaging a double-double, until the star center unfortunately fractured his leg against Ely Jan. 24.
"He was an X-factor for us," said Otis.
Otis didn't hesitate to credit Carlton, however, which used its length, depth and experience to take over last weekend. The Bulldogs led by 18 at halftime and only extended it as time went on. In comparison to Carlton's seven seniors, FDL has zero.
"We were a young team and played a tough schedule," said Otis of a slate that included eight games against potential state tournament qualifiers this coming weekend. "One of our goals was to make it to UMD and we got to our goal. We got to UMD. I was really proud of these guys."
Harris couldn't agree more. Knowing his Bulldogs for just 24 months now in his second season on the sidelines, the coach admitted he transitioned back to boys basketball from girls for his own enjoyment.
"I thought it'd just be fun," Harris said. "But I never expected to gain family. And these young men are definitely part of my family."
"I wouldn't want to play for any other coach," added Lekander. "Our coach was a gift to Carlton."
And don't think for a second these soon-to-be graduates won't be back to help support in the future.
"There's a special place in my heart for Carlton," said Ojibway of the school he'll so dearly miss playing for. "I'm never going to forget the memories I made here."
Or the 1,001 reasons why he wouldn't have wanted to do it anywhere else.