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Prep boys basketball: Berger leads Esko past Virginia in 7AA semifinals

Virginia's Kyle Williams (left) and Nick Peters and Esko's Payton Wefel and Trevor Spindler (right) get tangled with the ball in the first half of the teams' Section 7AA boys basketball semifinal Tuesday at Romano Gym. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

PREP BOYS BASKETBALL / SECTION 7AA SEMIFINALS / ESKO 69, VIRGINIA 46

Esko senior Camden Berger got the ball near the top of the key and feinted hard with his right foot Tuesday night at Romano Gym. Once, twice, maybe three times, until his defender quit reacting to the jab step.

Berger then blew past the sufficiently lulled and flat-footed Virginia player, kissing the ball off the glass for two of his game-high 23 points in the Eskomos’ 69-46 romp over the Blue Devils in a Section 7AA semifinal.

At first glance, speed wouldn’t appear to be a key element of Berger’s game.

“He doesn’t necessarily look like the quickest guy, but he’s got a quick first step,” first-year Esko coach Derek Anderson said.

Unsuspecting opponents learn that the hard way.

“I’m pretty shifty,” the Eskomos’ veteran point guard said. “I just wait for a defender to get off-balance or in a bad position, then I take advantage of it.”

Shifty, crafty, cunning … whatever he wants to call it, it’s certainly effective.

Berger led the deep and relentless Eskomos (20-9) to their eighth straight win, a methodical start-to-finish performance that has them in their eighth section final in as many years. Top-seeded and defending champ Esko hooks up with No. 3 Pequot Lakes on Thursday back at Romano in a rematch of the teams’ Feb. 5 meeting, a 63-53 victory for the Eskomos.

Early on in Berger’s varsity career, he was primarily a shooter, spending much of his time at the 3-point line. He’s since become just as much of an attacker, and with a lethal mid-range game that often has the third-year starter driving hard toward the basket before stopping on a dime for a pull-up jumper.

And Berger can still shoot from the outside, as evidenced by his 3-pointer with 6:12 remaining in the second half that not only pushed Esko’s lead to 63-37, but also pushed him to 1,000 career points.

“His freshman, sophomore year, that’s what we needed was a spot-up shooter,” said Anderson, previously an assistant on Mike Devney’s staff. “He took that role on and he did it really nicely. As a junior and now as a senior, he’s the guy that we want the ball in his hands.”

Trevor Spindler added 21 points for the Eskomos, who had nine players crack the scoresheet. Esko seemingly has a never-ending supply of lookalikes, 6-footers — give or take a few inches — who are long, athletic and can chuck it. They come in waves. Tuesday, they wore down the Blue Devils (16-13).

“The energy level they started with caught us off-guard,” first-year Virginia coach Derek Aho said. “Once we started to respond, it was too late. They just have so many weapons.”

Indeed, the Eskomos used a 13-0 run to jump in front 17-4.

Jayden Bernard’s 14 first-half points kept the Blue Devils close. They trailed 34-22 at the half, but Berger poured in 15 after the break as Esko pulled away. Bernard ended the night with 21 points.

Spindler, who netted 14 of his points in the first half, knocked down three of the Eskomos’ four 3s. The athletic forward helped Esko turn this semifinal into a track meet at times as the Eskomos raced up and down the court, frequently getting easy buckets in transition.

The team’s depth was on display throughout. Anderson said part of that can be attributed to an unfortunate bout of injuries this season. Berger, for example, missed eight or nine games with a sprained right ankle.

“I don’t know if lucky is necessarily the word you want to use, but we had some injuries and guys had to step up,” Anderson said. “That’s really helped them do a little bit more than what was expected of them. It helps that depth.”

  • When these teams met in the 2018 section final, Rich Odell was Virginia’s coach and Devney led the Eskomos. Combined, they brought nearly 1,100 wins into that contest. Odell retired last spring, and Devney now coaches at Duluth Denfeld.

Pequot Lakes 71, Greenway 56

The Patriots wasted little time taking control of Tuesday night’s first semifinal, building a 43-22 halftime lead, which they extended following the break en route to a convincing win over the Raiders.

Tyler Manley and Jordan Schommer scored 25 and 21 points, respectively, for Pequot Lakes (23-6).

Jace Hansen-Cochran and Dylan DeChampeau had 17 points apiece to pace the Raiders (21-6).