March is here ... and so is the madness
CLOQUET—It was the last day of February on Tuesday, but Allie Wojtysiak and the Cloquet girls basketball team began March Madness a little early.
Yes, this is the time of year on the hardwood where brackets become busted, emotions run wild and buzzer-beaters aren't uncommon.
That was the scene Tuesday when Wojtysiak banked in a shot underneath the basket with 4 seconds remaining to lead the Lumberjacks to a 63-61 victory over Princeton in an incredible Section 7AAA quarterfinal in Cloquet.
As the ball went through the net, the crowd erupted, the horn sounded and not long after, first-year coach Heather Young addressed her team in the locker room.
"It's the playoffs," she said. "It's the best time of year."
For Young's fourth-seeded Lumberjacks (15-12), Tuesday was their first postseason win in recent memory. The program last went to the state tournament in 2004 when Young coached them prior to having her daughter and taking time away to be a mom.
Now back, Young and her team will travel to top-seeded Grand Rapids for Saturday's semifinals at 2 p.m. in a game Cloquet has been waiting for. The Lumberjacks have lost their only two meetings to the No. 8 state-rated Thunderhawks, their first by nine points, and the second one by 50.
"We have some redeeming to do," said Young of their 87-37 loss on Feb. 10. "We are fortunate to get another opportunity."
Second-seeded and No. 10 state-ranked Hermantown, meanwhile, sits on the opposite side of the bracket. The finals will be next Thursday at Duluth Denfeld.
The sophomore Wojtysiak — assisted by senior Nicole Blatchford on Tuesday's game-winner — centered Cloquet with 16 points against the fifth-seeded Tigers. Blatchford, the team's captain, and 6-foot-2 junior center Carmen Foss followed with 13 points apiece.
Speaking of scoring, Esko senior Ava Gonsorowski does it with the best of them. She currently ranks fourth in school history with 1,579 points and will be pivotal in pacing the Eskomos in a deep 7AA field.
While top-seeded Esko (21-6) has been to the finals every year since 2009 — or when Gonsorowski and her five senior teammates were fourth-graders — plenty of challengers want their time to shine.
Co-No. 1 seed Duluth Marshall is having a breakout year, while fellow Northland teams including Two Harbors, Proctor, and International Falls all field solid squads.On the opposing side sits Pequot Lakes, the section's defending champ and the team that edged Esko in last year's final, 62-58.
The Eskomos eased by Hinckley-Finlayson in Tuesday's opener 66-7, leading 39-0 at halftime. They face Aitkin in Saturday's quarters at 7:15 p.m. with the semis and finals set for next Tuesday and Friday at the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Romano Gymnasium — a familiar venue for Esko.
That's where Gonsorowski and her teammates had scissors in hand as they snipped down nets on their way to the state tournament their freshman and sophomore years. To make it back a third time in their final season would only be fitting.
"We all want it and are all gunning for it. We're trying to finish with a bang," said Gonsorowski, who has been playing with her classmates since second grade. "It always feels good to stand up on that ladder and take a cut. We want to be there again."
Coach Scott Antonutti, however, added that anything can happen in the playoffs as in the end, "it comes down to four games."
That fourth game could pit Esko against Pequot Lakes again in a finals rematch. Antonutti's Eskomos edged the Patriots 54-46 on Jan. 19 and a potential season sweep would be that much sweeter.
"That'd be nice," Antonutti said, "but it doesn't matter to me who we face as long as we get a chance in that section final."
Looking at Section 5A, the finals are almost a certainty for Cromwell-Wright (21-4), the section's top seed, reigning champs and seventh-ranked club among all in Class A.
The high-octane Cardinals' only losses are to Class A's top-ranked Mountain Iron-Buhl twice, Class AA's No. 1 unbeaten Roseau and St. Paul Como Park, who played in last year's Class AAA state tournament. Their lone challenger in the bracket may be fellow top seed Kimball Area.
That said, the facts don't lie. Cromwell-Wright is the second-highest scoring small school statewide, averaging 80.9 points per night. They can score inside and out, but mainly from beyond the arc. They have hit a dizzying 257 three-pointers this winter, while even more impressively, their entire team is casting above a 40 percent clip from downtown. They average more than 10 makes an evening.
"We all have the green light," said senior Chelsea Swatek.
Swatek, classmate Bailey Gronner and junior Teana Hakamaki are all 1,000-point scorers, capable of putting the ball in the basket at will. Teana's sister Taya and cousin Shaily are also point-producers for a team which boasts a vast artillery of weapons.
"I've got five girls who can shoot the rock," said coach Jeff Gronner.
In fact, Swatek is just 18 points shy of surpassing the school's scoring record of 1,859 (set by Kylee Smith, who went on to play at UMD). She'll likely hit the milestone tonight, Thursday, March 2, when the Cardinals host Bertha-Hewitt at 7 p.m.
Yet, the main thing on Swatek and Co.'s minds is returning to the state tournament — a place they exited prematurely last March after an opening round defeat.
"We want to have a better showing," said Gronner.
"That's the hope," added Swatek, who was also named as one of just 40 seniors statewide to play in April's Minnesota All-Star Series.
"If we play well we can play well, we can beat anybody in the state," Gronner continued. "But if we don't, upsets can happen."
For Gronner, he'll be seeking his second straight state event, having taken the town's football team to U.S. Bank Stadium in November.
"I've been very blessed," he said.
Meanwhile in 7A, MIB is a mountain of a foe to face, as the top-ranked Rangers are the six-time defending section champions. Last year, they finished third at state.
Senior Chelsea Mason makes them go, soon seeking to be the 14th girl in state history to score 3,000 career points. Classmate Mya Buffetta meanwhile has over 2,000 and junior Mary Burke boasts well over 1,000.
"They're the favorites," said Carlton coach Andrew Weber Monday night. "Probably one of the favorites in the state."
Weber's fourth-seeded Bulldogs (12-14) though, have their own scene hopefully set for tonight, March 2, when they face fifth seed Northland-Remer in Hermantown at 5:45 p.m.
Senior Jenna Reed has poured in 464 points this season alone and is now just 16 shy of 1,000. Her 17.8 points per game average tops a team hopeful for a quarterfinal date with fellow No. 1 seed Floodwood on Saturday at the Hibbing Memorial Arena at 7:15 p.m.
To get both a victory and the milestone made tonight, Weber said would be "awesome."
But like any coach these days, their playoff game plan remains simple.
"It's one game at a time," Weber said. "And we're looking to start off 1-0."
Around the Region
Elsewhere in 7A are No. 3 South Ridge (11-12), No. 7 Fond du Lac Ojibwe (7-14) and No. 9 Wrenshall. The one-win Wrens were eliminated Monday, while in 7AA, four-win Moose Lake-Willow River was ousted by No. 2 Pequot Lakes Tuesday.
Sixth-seeded Barnum's game with Crosby-Ironton was postponed to Wednesday due to a scheduling conflict, and was played as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.
Nonetheless, special things are possible in the games that remain.
As was evidenced by Wojtysiak and the Lumberjacks' already: one game, one buzzer-beater.
"Many athletes hung up their uniforms tonight," said Coach Young. "We had a great moment — and are blessed to be moving on."