Cards capture section, surge on to state
CROSBY—On a night where 3-pointers were plentiful for the Cromwell-Wright girls basketball team, Teana Hakamaki had her fair share of long balls. Still, without a doubt, the sophomore’s shortest shot brought the biggest roar.
The Crosby-Ironton High School gymnasium is likely still ringing after Cardinals fans erupted when watching Hakamaki’s left-handed layup with 7.1 seconds dethrone two-time defending champion Browerville-Eagle Valley 73-71 in an incredible Section 5A final last Friday in Crosby, Minn.
Not only did the waning-second shot off the glass top the favored Tigers, but it sent Cromwell-Wright to the state tournament, where the fourth-seeded Cardinals (27-3) open with No. 5 Wheaton-Herman-Norcross (28-2) at 1 p.m. today (Thursday, March 17) in the Class A quarterfinal at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
It is the Cromwell-Wright girls basketball team’s first state appearance in 12 years.
“I’m just beyond excited, I don’t even have words to explain it,” said the 5-foot-6 Hakamaki amid a throng of celebratory cell phone-photo taking Cardinals fans last weekend. “State has been our goal. We wanted this a lot.”
A lot of drama followed Hakamaki’s game-winning shot, starting with the moment Tiger Crystal Pearson lost the ball into the hands of Teana’s older cousin, senior Andrea Hakamaki.
In an utterly joyous celebration any teenager would have upon realizing the school is going to the state tournament for the first time since 2004, Andrea Hakamaki pounded down the ball and started jumping around. The buzzer rang, the stands thundered and the officials met, putting one second back on. Tigers ball.
“My stomach just dropped,” Teana Hakamaki recalled.
Moments later, Quinn Kircher, one of five 1,000-point scorers for Browerville-Eagle Valley, missed her 3-point try.
“Thankfully we pulled it off a second time,” added Teana Hakamaki, who led the Cardinals with 25 points Friday. “This was the best game that I’ve ever been a part of.”
It would be difficult to argue that point. Last weekend’s title tilt — which packed one side of the bleachers in Cardinals red and the other in Tigers orange — included 144 points, 24 lead changes, nine ties and 20 total 3-pointers between two schools with a combined 52 wins.
“It seemed like a state tournament game,” said Browerville-Eagle Valley coach Matt Middendorf, who had brought his Tigers to state the past two years. “Both teams left it all out there and no one has any reason to hang their head. It was a great basketball game — just too bad somebody had to lose.”
Speaking off loss, Middendorf graduates a handful of seniors, a quartet of which — including the junior Kircher — totaled more than 7,000 career points and were the first starting five in Minnesota prep history to all have over 1,000 points each, including Pearson, Kale Knutson, Paige Callahan and Kendra Buchta. Pearson scored a game-high 29 last weekend, while Kircher added 14, Buchta 12 and Callahan chipped in 10. Middendorf didn’t make a single substitution the entire night.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Middendorf said. “Those kids are the model for hard work. They raised the bar so high.”
It was the smiling Cardinals, though, who raised the section trophy, cut down the nets and are now at the state tournament.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said junior Chelsea Swatek, who had 13 points to aid Hakamaki and Bailey Gronner’s 18. “I wouldn’t want to go with any other team.”
That team hit a dizzying 14 3-pointers last weekend, nothing new for a squad that shoots over 40 percent from behind the arc, having made over 300 triples this season.
“That’s our strong point — everyone on our team can shoot,” the junior Gronner, daughter of coach Jeff Gronner, said after making four trifectas last weekend to go with Hakamaki’s six, Swatek’s three and one via senior Kiiera Anderson. “We all have the confidence and just let it fly.”
“We shoot the ball well — that’s what we do,” said the elder Gronner, just after sharing a two-armed hug with Bailey following the final buzzer. “This is the best shooting team in Cromwell history and it’s not close. We’re going to shatter 2-point, 3-point and free-throw shooting percentages. I don’t know how well we shot [tonight], but I know it was well.”
Not long after embracing his daughter in a moment they’ll never forget, Gronner went to assistant coach Dave Foster for a high-five. Both teachers and good friends, the pair has been coaching together for 13 years, Gronner also as the head coach and Foster the assistant for the town’s football team.
The duo captured the 2010 Prep Bowl together before leaping into one another’s arms, smiling ear to ear. That’s not to say the Cardinals are sure to do the same this weekend in Minneapolis, but don’t count out fast-paced, deep-shooting and fearless Cromwell-Wright’s chances against anybody.
“This was our goal,” said Gronner, “but we’re not done.”
Foster, the head coach of the 2004 state qualifying team, agreed, noting it is fun to share the state experience again with his good pal and their non-stop mix of players on the court.
“I’ve taught a lot of these kids since they were in kindergarten,” Foster said. “They’re a fun-loving group that has worked so hard. This is something they’ve really earned.”
“I’m just so happy — for everybody,” chimed Gronner.
“It’s so exciting for the community,” added Kylee Smith, the school’s all-time leading scorer and member of the 2004 state team who later went on to play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and was in attendance last weekend and will be again this week. “I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it. I couldn’t be happier. I think I got a tear in my eye for them.”
Cromwell-Wright right where they want to be
As coach Jeff Gronner answered questions from the media following his Cromwell-Wright girls basketball team’s 73-71 victory over Browerville-Eagle Valley in the Section 5A final last Friday, a Tiger fan interrupted to wish him the Cardinals good luck at state.
“Go get ‘em” he said and smiled. “We’ll be watching you guys.”
Such is the case for many in the small — likely ghost-town — communities of Cromwell and Wright this week, as the Cardinals make their first state appearance since 2004. Cromwell-Wright clashes with Wheaton-Herman-Norcross in a 1 p.m. Class A quarterfinal at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis today, Thursday, March 17 . The semifinals and final, would take place Friday and Saturday, respectively, at nearby Williams Arena.
Fourth-seeded and No. 9 state-ranked Cromwell-Wright (27-3), which moved from Section 7A last year, earned their school’s third overall state trip by last weekend stunning the two-time 5A champion Tigers — Minnesota’s first prep group ever with five 1,000-point starters.
The quick, long-range Cardinals — so balanced — did so with 14 3-pointers, and now boast over 300 made at a 40-plus percent mark this winter. Juniors Chelsea Swatek, Bailey Gronner and sophomore Teana Hakamaki — one of five rostered Hakamakis — are all threats.
The fifth-seeded and No. 10 Warriors (28-2) are in their first trip as a cooperative program. Wheaton last made the tournament in 1987.
Follow Pine Journal sports reporter Tyler Korby on Twitter at @tylerkorby or tune-in to WKLK-FM 96.5 for gametime coverage. See www.pinejournal.com for results throughout the tournament.