As evidenced by the standing-room-only crowd on hand last Friday, the Brown Jug basketball game between Carlton and Wrenshall means much to the pair of tiny towns.
For Bulldog senior Waylon Lekander, though, it meant just a little bit more.
That's because Lekander missed the most meaningful game on their schedule last year when the Carlton point guard was in the hospital due to illness.
Lekander looked anything but ill last week when the 6-foot, 165-pounder scored 17 points, along with teammate Matthew Hey’s 17 points, to lead the Bulldogs by the Wrens 67-59 before bursting bleachers last week in Carlton.
"It felt extra special for me," said Lekander, struggling for words. "I knew it was going to be my last Jug game, so I came out, did my best and had to make it count."
The Jug game is the biggest on the hoops schedule for the boys and the girls teams from both Polar League schools. Add to the fact that it's held for just once per year on the owner's home floor, this historic memento is everything to these communities separated by four miles along County Road 1.
While the girls' jug comes in at five pounds and has been traveling between towns since 1980, the boys' trophy looks more like a massive moonshine jug, weighing around 30 pounds. Marked with each season and score on the respective winning team's side each year, this small-school hoopla began for the boys in 1951.
Carlton coach Jeswa Harris, now in his second season leading the Bulldogs, said winning the jug game was on the top of his to-do his list when he accepted the job last season.
"It was the first game the parents asked about," said Harris with a laugh. "It's only my second year, but I'm well aware of the rivalry and strong connection between these communities."
Harris watched as Carlton clung to a 31-28 advantage at halftime in a contest poised to go down to the wire again, just like eight- and one-point wins over Wrenshall already by the Bulldogs earlier this season.
Tied with around five minutes remaining, however, Lekander and his Carlton teammates took control down the stretch. While Lekander and the junior Hey led the charge, senior Sam Macor added 13 points, while classmate and near 1,000-point scorer Tyler Ojibway added eight. All in all, seven different Bulldogs made buckets.
That consistent contribution and added experience has the Bulldogs (10-2) sitting with their best record in recent memory. In fact, Carlton only won 10 games all of last year. Equaling their victory total thus far with almost two months left on their schedule, Harris remains optimistic for a Bulldog charge come March.
Before Monday's 70-62 loss to Fond du Lac Ojibwe — played at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College — Carlton was rated as high as No. 7 in the Minnesota-Scores based Quality Results Formula out of 157 Class A schools within the state.
"It's definitely the best season we've had since I've been playing," said Lekander.
"I love these kids. They're a great group of young men," added Harris, always so positive about his boys. "We've laid down a really good foundation and we love the future, but we're going take it one game at a time and see how far we can take it."
While Wrenshall was trying to take back the Jug after losing it at home a season ago, Carlton kept it in their trophy case as you walk into the gymnasium. Before being put behind glass again, players took plenty of cell phone photos with the heavy award.
For Lekander, a picture wasn't simply enough.
"I gave it a good kiss," he said, with a smile. "I'll remember it the rest of my life."
Wrenshall's Tyler Kelley was the leading scorer for his team, seeking revenge from last season and two narrow defeats earlier this winter. The Wrens lost their season-opener to the Bulldogs 62-54, while they also came up a point short in a 62-61 title game at the Chisholm holiday tournament last month.
Kelley counted a game-best 24 points — including five 3-pointers. Even more impressive, the 5-4, 140-pounder did so with a broken right foot. Yes, a broken foot.
Kelley sustained the injury early in the first half, but when asked, couldn't remember exactly when or how. Ironically, this came one year after the star fractured his left wrist — in the same gymnasium.
Second-year coach Jon Bartczak gave Kelley the option to play or sit, not knowing the extent of the injury, and Kelley didn't hesitate. He never came out once.
"The Jug means so much, not only to me, but to everyone in Wrenshall. There is nothing that would keep me out," said Kelley, wearing a walking boot come Monday. "I felt I had to stay in the game and keep working. As the captain, I didn't want to set an example that giving up was OK."
"Tyler's an incredible kid," added Bartczak. "He's the heart of our offense and defense, a natural-born leader and just a tough-as-nails kid."
Freshman Randy Wimmer contributed 13 points and junior Nick Mattson had 12 — all from beyond the arc — along with Kelley's younger brother, Jared, who scored eight points.
Those names will keep the Wrens (8-4) in the mix the rest of the year. After all, they have increased their win percentage by 800 percent after last year's winless season. Then, if and when Kelley returns — he is now sidelined for six weeks — watch out for this group come the postseason. They could surely surprise any naysayers.
Asked if he'll be back by March in time for playoffs if given the clearance to play, Kelley was quick to answer.
He said he'd play in his walking boot if allowed.
"I'd be on the court before you know it," said Kelley, then answering what colors he would get his cast, if needed. "I think I'd go orange with black stripes."
He’s a Wren through and through. No wonder the Jug means so much.