MINNEAPOLIS—Carlton County is one of the smaller of Minnesota’s 87 counties, but the one with the biggest basketball buzz over the past several weeks.
Not only did our small county — just over 35,000 people in population and 860 square miles in size — produce plenty of March Madness, but it became a high school basketball hotbed incomparable to any challenger.
The numbers alone are staggering: five of our nine county schools played in their respective boys basketball section finals within two days; three of those teams — Cloquet, Esko and Fond du Lac Ojibwe School — made the state tournament. To top it all off, the Eskomo boys team topped Annandale and won the small school’s first-ever state championship, and a first for northeastern Minnesota since Chisholm in 1991.
I’m only getting started.
On the same day the Esko boys won it all, their girls advanced to State by beating Barnum in the section final — a game the boys traveled home quickly to see before flooding the floor when the buzzer sounded on an epic day of champions.
Both teams celebrated at the school last Sunday, signing autographs for the community and celebrating a day that will be remembered forever in Esko history.
As if that wasn’t enough, three days later, the Eskomos pulled off perhaps the girls tournament’s most shocking upset, stunning No. 3 New London-Spicer, home of the state’s all-time winningest girls coach, Mike Dreier.
It was like Esko High School couldn’t lose — nor this small northeastern Minnesota county — representing our overlooked land of basketball perfectly.
The Cloquet boys, making it to the state tournament for the first time in 14 years, had a sea of “whited-out” students at Williams Arena, as hometown supporters turned out en masse for the game.
Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, placing fourth in their first-ever state tournament in any sport, had throngs of fans present — some of the loudest — while honorary flag songs were played before each Ogichidaa game.
Game after game, I continued to watch the county impress the northern naysayers, happily reporting and observing some of the proudest people in my time.
I was plenty busy, but it was an honor for a sports guru like me, getting to cover one of the state’s tiniest places, showing that we’re a hoops hotbed, too.