GIRLS BASKETBALL AA STATE TOURNAMENT
WHO: Esko vs. New London-Spicer
WHEN: Esko played Wednesday as this issue of the Pine Journal went to press and will play again Thursday or Friday
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DULUTH—In the closing minutes of last Friday’s Section 7AA girls basketball final at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth, Esko students — watching their team win handily — loudly chanted “This is our house.”
And rightfully so.
The Eskomos have turned the University of Minnesota-Duluth venue into their home-away-from-home in recent years, taking part in the past eight consecutive title tilts. And cruising by Crosby-Ironton 55-39 last week to advance to their third state tournament in four seasons just further showed their sense of familiarity on campus.
“I have been playing here since my freshman year,” said Esko senior Karlie Kulas, wearing the championship net around her neck not long after leading all scorers with 13 points. “It used to be intimidating, but now it’s just comforting.”
Top-seeded Esko (24-6) sure looked comfortable in their 14-point win. Despite an early two-point lead by the upstart Rangers, seeded third, the Eskomos soon tied things 9-9, before finishing the first half on a 17-6 spurt for a 26-15 advantage by halftime.
If that weren’t enough, Crosby-Ironton centerpiece Jami Nelson was whistled for her fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half and was relegated to the sidelines. Within a couple minutes, the Eskomos widened the gap to 17, never to look back. The Rangers (17-13) would get no closer than 13 points the rest of the game, as Esko eased into its school’s 12th overall state appearance.
The win avenged a 62-58 setback to Pequot Lakes in last year’s final, one that provided plenty of incentive this time around.
“I think that was a strong motivation,” said Esko coach Scott Antonutti, now in his ninth season.
“That was our No. 1 goal — to make up for last year and get back to state,” added senior Selena Shady, who chipped in 12 points. “We’re all so excited to be back.”
Speaking of thrills, Crosby-Ironton began this season 0-5 and last weekend was sitting in the final. With just one senior, Shayla Loiland, graduating, the Rangers may be back in the same position come next March.
“I think that would be a wonderful treat,” said first-year coach Sue Peterson.
Peterson was to the point. No tears, nor long end-of-the-year speeches on her part. Instead she just delighted with her squad — paced by the junior Nelson’s 11 points — and aware of their very experienced opponent.
“Esko is a quality team, they’re smart and they capitalized,” Peterson said. “But I’m really proud of my girls. We really had to come together and we did that. It was a nice finish.”
Meanwhile, the Eskomos hoped to be far from finished this week when they faced familiar foe New London-Spicer (26-3) in the Class AA quarterfinals Wednesday afternoon at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.
In 2014 during this same game at this same arena, Esko edged the Wildcats 39-35 en route to third place — the highest finish in school history. To do so, the Eskomos needed to pick apart a stingy, pack-it-in zone guided by Hall of Fame coach Mike Dreier, who has more wins to his name than any coach in Minnesota history.
In his 39 seasons all at the small central Minnesota school about an hour southwest of St. Cloud, Dreier has a dizzying overall record of 891-164.
“They are awfully good,” said Antonutti of fourth-seeded New London-Spicer, who sports five players averaging between nine and 14 points per contest.
Equally balanced is fifth-seeded Esko. While Kulas and Shady scored the majority last week, four players average at least seven a night, led by senior Ava Gonsorowski at 17. Gonsorowski, with now over 1,600 points in her four-year career, had just five against the Rangers — and not a single field goal — yet, eight Eskomos still earned their way to the box score.
“Basketball is a team sport,” said Gonsorowski. “We’re glad to be here. And we can compete. We’re a tough team and we’re going to go down and do some damage hopefully.”
Gonsorowski is one of six seniors, five of whom start. Mix that experience with the fact that Esko is healthy, victors of five straight since losing to undefeated Roseau — the tournament’s top seed — and that they’re playing their best basketball of the winter, the Eskomos won’t be easy to pick against.
Still, Esko will have needed to shoot effectively and stay stringy defensively to down Dreier again. A win would put the Eskomos in Friday’s semifinals at 6 p.m. at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. A loss sends them to tonight’s (Thursday, March 16) consolation bracket.
“We have some tourney experience, streaky shooters and we play solid defense,” said Antonutti earlier this week. “I’ve always thought we could play with anyone. Hit some shots, play some defense, have some luck and we are in the mix. Our kids will be ready to play.”
Antonutti celebrated his 45th birthday Monday at the Gonsorowski residence. A 1990 graduate of Esko, this is his 20th overall season on a sideline, also having assisted in Fosston, Minn., when the Greyhounds won Class A crowns in 2000, 2001 and 2003.
Perhaps his first as a head coach would the best gift yet.
“It wouldn’t be called March Madness if crazy things didn’t happen,” Antonutti said.
“Nobody should overlook us,” said Kulas, one of several players who were on the record-setting 2014 squad, “because we’re that team that can pull out a W.”