MINNEAPOLIS — New London-Spicer’s Mike Dreier is the winningest girls basketball coach in Minnesota history. Yet entering Wednesday’s Class AA state quarterfinal with Esko, his counterpart, Scott Antonutti, was seeking to go a rare two-for-two against the state icon.
As he has done now 892 times in his 39 years, all at the small central Minnesota school, Dreier got back to his winning ways.
While the Eskomos won the last time these two met in the state quarterfinals at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, Dreier watched his Wildcats even the series in the same round and same venue with their 48-43 victory on the University of Minnesota campus. Dreier’s career coaching record now stands at a dizzying 892-164.
“That guy’s a legend,” said Antonutti afterward.
In 2014 though, it was Antonutti and Esko who hung a 39-35 loss on Dreier and NLS in a shocking scene that eventually turned into Esko’s highest finish in school history when they placed third.
Wednesday’s game — played on the Minnesota Lynx’s WNBA floor inside the collegiate hockey arena — looked similar as in prior years, in a low-scoring, drag-it-out defensive affair.
Fifth-seeded Esko (24-7), making their 12th overall state appearance and third trip in the past four years, trailed 7-0 early, but evaporated that with a 7-0 surge of their own to soon tie things at 11-11. The Wildcats (27-3), seeded fourth and in their 17th state trek under Dreier, answered. They finished the first frame by scoring 15 of the last 24 and going into halftime ahead 26-20.
NLS expanded their lead to 30-22 just over a minute into the second frame, but still, the Eskomos never went away. In fact, a 3-pointer by senior Selena Shady narrowed the Wildcats’ advantage to 36-33, while classmate Ava Gonsorowski’s ensuing soft jumper from the right elbow cut it to one at 36-35, forcing Dreier to take his third timeout with 3:48 to play.
It seemed then, as the blue and gold students shouted support loudly, Esko may just beat Dreier again.
“I thought we had it for sure,” said Shady, who finished with a team-best 11 points.
“To their credit, they just kept coming and coming and coming,” added Dreier.
Yet, several scoreless possessions stalled the Eskomos’ efficiency and Dreier’s crew came to play during crunch time. Junior Shea Oman and senior Morgan Swenson both scored in the closing minutes, finishing with 16 and 11 points, respectively. And senior Kabrie Weber’s left-wing 3-pointer with 2:25 to go was seemingly also a dagger, making it 43-38.
But even then, Esko didn’t fade. Gonsorowski’s pair of late free throws and another triple via Shady’s right hand kept the northerners in it with 17 seconds to play, down 46-43.
“We thought we were comfortable, but they’d always answer back,” Dreier said. “But thankfully, we were able to come out on top.”
The Wildcats finally put it away at the line, earning their way to Friday’s semifinals against top-ranked and unbeaten Roseau (30-0) at Williams Arena in Minneapolis at 6 p.m.
“They’re surely the favorite being undefeated and rated number one,” Dreier said, “but we’ll be here ready to go. Hopefully it’ll be good.”
Looking at his numbers, one would think Dreier’s bunch will be in the mix.
“He’s a great coach,” said Gonsorowski, who finished with 10 points, along with sophomore Bridget Yellin.
Not to be overshadowed, Antonutti, a 1990 Esko graduate, in his ninth season at his alma mater, including his 20th overall, having assisted Fosston to Class A crowns in 2000, 2001 and 2003.
And it was Gonsorowski who gave Antonutti a big hug outside the locker room between postgame interviews. For the scorer of over 1,600 points and soon-to-be collegiate player next winter, she and her teammates are simply just enjoying the rest of their time in the Twin Cities. Gonsorowski is one of six seniors on the team, five of whom start for Antonutti.
“We put it all out there and are proud of our efforts,” Gonsorowski said.
“They’re fighters, they’re gritty,” added Antonutti. “They came ready to play.”
Esko will hope to continue that in Thursday’s consolation round with New Richland-H-E-G (25-6) at 6 p.m. from Concordia University in St. Paul. A loss would end their season, but a victory would extend their weekend.
Shady said their game plan is simple.
“We want to win so we don’t have to go back to school on Friday,” she said with a laugh.
“We played so hard for this one, but unfortunately we just didn’t come up on the winning side,” Shady continued. “We definitely don’t like to lose, so we’ll go out [Thursday] and give it our all.”