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Cloquet ends season with high hopes for next year

7AAA BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS

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After a 81-64 loss to Esko on Jan. 12, Cloquet boys basketball coach Steve Battaglia knew something had to change.

The team stood 3-12 and was going nowhere, having lost nine games in a row.

"We had some pretty frank discussions about what it takes to be good at this level," Battaglia said. "The kids listened."

The rest of the season, Cloquet went 9-4 and reached the semifinals of the Section 7AAA tournament last Friday night in Hibbing. There, they lost 72-57 to Grand Rapids, ending their season at 12-16 but setting up bright hope for the future.

"We had a major turnaround at the end of January," Battaglia said. "The first half was disappointing, we lost six games by four points or less including twice to Hermantown, and then we found ourselves."

Against the Thunderhawks, though, Cloquet found out how far they still have to go. Grand Rapids hit four of its first five attempts from beyond the arc and held the 'Jacks to single digits in the first half.

Rapids led 19-2 at one point in the game and led 36-9 at half.

"We ran into a buzzsaw," Battaglia admitted. "But we played a strong second half and we are optimistic about what's ahead."

One of those reasons for optimism was a 15-point win at Hermantown in the section quarterfinals last Wednesday.

"I've been doing this 12 years. This is the second time we've upset someone in the postseason," Battaglia said. "In the postseason, higher seeds win games. But we took Hermantown in the playoffs and we just beat them. There's a lot of satisfaction in that."

Battaglia said the playoff win is what he wants his players to remember.

"They are probably our chief rival in a lot of sports," he said. "We're similar-sized schools, we beat them to go to state in 2014 and we felt like we gave them two games in the regular season. Then we beat them in the playoffs by 15. So we can see some strides."

Also, seven of the nine players in Battaglia's main varsity rotation are back next season.

"Riley Johnson was a sophomore last year and missed the whole season with a knee injury and we hope to get him back next year too," Battaglia said. "We played some pretty good basketball at the end of the season."

Battaglia credited his players for the turnaround.

"You have to live in the gym in the winter, and with as many three-sport athletes as we have, that's not always easy in the off season. But after we talked in January, guys kept calling me, wanting to be let into the gym. They're all-in now."

The three-sport issue at a smaller school like Cloquet is one that affects every coach.

"I think we only have one guy who is basketball-only," Battaglia said. "I'd rather take a slow start from someone having a successful fall season in another sport because that's good for everyone."

The team says goodbye to two quality seniors.

"Brandon Hill and Joey Obeidzinski are great kids," Battalia said. "Brandon is one of the best spot-up shooters we've had in awhile and Joey missed the first part of the season with a broken thumb but was coming on great at the end. He had 13 points against Grand Rapids (in the semifinal loss) which speaks well of him."

The winning at the end of the season has Battaglia looking forward to next year.

"There's a lot of reason for us to be optimistic with all the kids we bring back," he said. "We have aspirations of that section championship game."

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