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Esko girls win Section 7AA crown

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Early in the second half of his Esko girls basketball team’s section title game against Barnum Saturday, Scott Antonutti said he saw the Esko boys basketball team — newly crowned Class AA state champions — walk into a gym he described as “electric.”

Energized by the ultra-rare scene — and thunderous applause that ensued — Antonutti’s Eskomos edged the Bombers 38-32 to claim the Section 7AA championship at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth Saturday and advance into this week’s state tournament for the first time since 2007.

The Esko boys, which earlier in the day won the school’s first-ever basketball title by beating Annandale, made sure they hurried out of Target Center in Minneapolis to attend as much of the girls game as possible.

The top-seeded Esko girls, who led just 18-17 at halftime, trailed No. 2 Barnum 19-18 early in the second when their boys victoriously entered the gym.

An instant later, Ashley Bergerson buried two 3-pointers around a Bailey Mudek layup for a 26-21 lead they never lost.

“It was perfect,” Bergerson said of the boys’ timing.

“All of sudden we heard all of the applause and cheers,” added teammate Kailee Katt, who is also dating Esko standout Kory Deadrick. “We realized we could go to State.”

Despite qualifying for their 10th overall state appearance, the Eskomos (25-5) went scoreless for the final 5:42 on Barnum, which also didn’t put up a point in last five minutes.

Bergerson scored nine points on three 3-pointers, as Bombers senior Daron Mainville — the last player from Barnum’s 2010 state champion team — paced all players with 12 points for Barnum (19-9), but never caught their Polar League rivals.

“I thought our girls played hard but didn’t necessarily make good decisions against Esko’s pressure,” Bombers Coach Katie Moench said. “I know they took the loss hard.”

Section final losses are what have happened to Esko each of the last four years to Braham, but with the other Bombers team absent, the Eskomos were eager to win and have now done it.

“It was awesome,” said Erika Shady, who celebrated with throngs of Esko fans and hoisted up the section trophy high.

“I started crying,” added older sibling, Marisa Shady, who never got to State, but jumped in her sister’s arms for a hug Saturday as part of a memorable celebration — boys included.

“That gave us some momentum,” Erika Shady said of the boys’ arrival. “I think it gave us the boost to win that game.”

Coach Antonutti could recall the emotional scene clearly.

“I was on the far end of the gym,” he said. “I looked to see what had happened, and the hair on my arms stood up.”