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Ogichidaag field new players, same styles and smiles

Fond du Lac Ojibwe’s Lester Williamson makes a basket between two Mesabi Academy defenders during Tuesday night's basketball game. The Ogichidaag won 83-45. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com1 / 4
Fond du Lac Ojibwe’s Uriah Aubid makes a scoop shot in front of Mesabi Academy's Damien Speltz during Tuesday night's basketball game. Dave Harwig/ 2 / 4
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FOND DU LAC RESERVATION—When watching the Fond du Lac Ojibwe boys basketball team play, one can’t help but notice the fun they have, as their up-and-down-the-floor pace is complemented by excitement and smiles.

Smiles circulated throughout the Cloquet gymnasium Tuesday night — accompanied by plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” — as spectators saw the Ogichidaag overwhelm visiting Mesabi Academy 83-45 in a running time game where they never trailed.

One play in particular stood out in the 38-point win, when FDL freshman forward Evan Butcher dunked the basketball for his first time ever.

Butcher, at 6-foot, 150 pounds, is in his first year playing varsity at the small tribal school, following his two prior seasons on the junior varsity. He started Tuesday, and with 3:18 left in an already-lopsided opening half, the 16-year-old gave the Ogichidaag a 43-19 lead — and everyone in the gym a treat — on his breakaway slam.

While Butcher and teammates on the floor broke out in wide-mouthed smiles, FDL’s bench was ecstatic, jumping up and down and raving about the moment. By halftime, fans in the stands were calling home about the scene. Afterward, fifth-year coach Earl Otis was just as impressed.

“I think he surprised everyone, even himself,” Otis said.

“I didn’t think I could get up that high, but I got it,” said Butcher, who hadn’t even jammed a ball in practice before Tuesday’s flush. “It felt good. I will always [remember it].”

While Butcher’s one-handed stuff stole the story, much of the dunking for the five-win Ogichidaag comes via senior Lester Williamson, a 6-3 forward in his fourth year on the varsity. Tuesday, less than two minutes before Butcher’s highlight, Williamson missed a slam attempt. The veteran instantly showed a smirk as his sidelined teammates broke into amusement.

“I’ll be hearing about that one for a couple weeks,” said Williamson with a laugh after scoring 18 points to follow 6-foot-7 senior Justin Brown’s game-best 22, while Butcher added 18 and fellow freshman Uriah Aubid had 11.

Williamson is the only player who was part of FDL’s state tournament trips, coming the last two seasons. A role player in the past, the wiry yet fun-to-watch 165-pounder has turned into a go-to guy. Both Williamson and Brown, the team’s only two varsity returnees, average about 20 points a night, said Otis, helping a youthful team in which eight of the 12 players are underclassmen.

“It was rough at first. We had a lot of young guys who weren’t use to this,” said Brown, “but we’re getting there.”

T.J. Gibson is in his 15th year coaching at Mesabi Academy. A native of the Bahamas, he agreed with Brown.

“They play fast and above the rim,” said Gibson, standing in a gym that now hangs three blue and gold state banners above the entrance. “I appreciate how they play.”

“We’ve got a young group,” added Williamson. “But a great young core that I think can play with anyone in the section.”

If that’s the case, FDL shouldn’t have to worry about teams like the Bulldogs Tuesday, but more like Mountain Iron-Buhl, North Woods and Co. The Ogichidaag lost to North Woods already and travel north to MIB next Tuesday.

FDL, which led 53-21 at halftime Tuesday, has now won three straight. It’s a day-by-day process, Otis said, but the Ogichidaag aren’t giving up their Section 7A trophy freely.

“These guys cheer for each other, are good teammates and we’re meshing,” Otis said. “But it’s one game at a time.”

If the wins keep coming one at a time — and at the right time — perhaps a third state tournament trip is in the offing.

“Most people don’t get that opportunity. I was lucky to see it twice,” Williamson said. “I’d be more than grateful to play a third time. Thinking of it just gets me all emotional.”