While Christmas had come and gone by the time the Wood City Classic holiday basketball tournament began Wednesday, Dec. 27, it was perhaps then that Allie Wojtysiak got her best gift of all.
The Cloquet junior's smile told the story last week as the 6-footer swished a game-winning 3-pointer to help lead her Lumberjacks by Blake 60-59 on the opening night of Cloquet's annual two-day event last week.
Playing before a hundred or so youngsters on youth medal night at a buzzing Cloquet Middle School, the Lumberjacks trailed the Bears by two when a Carmen Foss rebound was rushed up to teammate Vanna Kelley in the waning seconds. Amongst the franticness Kelley, also a junior, calmly fed Wojtysiak on the left wing before the right-hander drained the eventual-winning triple with just 4.1 seconds remaining.
Doing so in front of her Lumberjacks' bench, her teammates roared along with the crowd in watching the most exciting shot of the tournament go through the net.
Asked of how long she'll remember the moment, Wojtysiak was quick to respond.
"A while," she said with an ear-to-ear smile afterward.
The game-clinching trifecta in fact was the only shot Wojtysiak took beyond the arc all evening. An effective shooter from distance all winter, Wojtysiak recalled when the shot left her hand that it was going to be "way short."
"I thought it was going to be an airball," Wojtysiak admitted.
Luckily for her and her celebratory teammates, it's was spot-on.
"Seeing everyone get excited, it was just awesome," said Kelley, who followed with 14 points and couldn't have counted a more-timely feed to Wojtysiak on the Lumberjacks' winning play. "I saw Allie and knew we needed a three-point play to win. When it went in, it was crazy. Everyone was screaming."
Second-year Cloquet coach Heather Young however, remained calm during the closing seconds, not taking an available timeout like most, but rather letting the contest ride out into the playmaking hands of Wojtysiak, the team's co-captain.
"We rely on her heavily," said Young of Wojtysiak. "But I completely trust Allie taking that shot."
After all, it's not the first game-winner for Wojtysiak, as last season, the then-sophomore banked in a victory-sealing layup before the buzzer to beat Princeton in the opening round of the playoffs.
"She's the type of player who if the ball's going to go in, it's going to go in for Allie," continued Young. "We may have had a little Lady Luck on our side, but for her to sink that, it was a spark, an exciting moment and I am real happy for her."
The Lumberjacks carried the momentum over the following night in the team's 51-42 win over defending champion Northwestern, Wisconsin. While the two clubs met for last year's championship, this time, Cloquet avenged the Tigers to claim their first Wood City title in recent memory.
Swift-footed junior Kendra Kelley paced the Lumberjacks with 16 points and Foss had 15, as the tandem were just two of four Cloquet players to score in double-digits for the tournament, highlighting the team's well-balanced depth.
"We walked out of here tonight hoping to continue to build and move forward," Young said. "We need to continue to bring our game."
The tournament itself surely brought its game. Held this winter at the brand-new, multimillion-dollar CMS gymnasium, the Wood City was again, a well-oiled machine.
Along with both the Cloquet girls and boys squads, Northwestern, Blake and Fond du Lac Objibwe filled out the girls' bracket, while Pine City, Duluth Denfeld and Cromwell-Wright comprised the boys' half of the eight-team field.
As schools entered the building the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 27, locker rooms were labeled clearly, the gym was pristine and music ready to amp up the largely anticipated crowds. Referees were taken care of quickly, the playing surface swept, tickets sold and plenty of parents ran the concession stand efficiently.
"It takes an army," Young said. "And we have a great army here. We are very fortunate."
Cloquet parents even provided all of the boys and girls teams with holiday gift bags when they arrived. Following Northwestern's 93-20 victory over FDL to open the event, senior Katie Lundeen had 16 points and plenty of praise for her second time playing at the tournament.
"We enjoy it here," Lundeen said of making the roughly one-hour trip westbound on Highway 2 to Cloquet. "Coming up here and playing the different types of competition is always fun."
For both the FDL girls and Cromwell-Wright boys, it was the first time participating for the pair of county schools giving the event even more local flavor.
"It's a 20-minute drive and we get to play two 3-A schools," Cromwell-Wright coach Bill Pocernich said, highlighting the bigger competition level was a benefit for his small-school Cardinals. "Our girls were a part of this a couple of years ago and they had a lot of good things to say about it. We're excited to be a part of this."
For FDL meanwhile, it was the highlight of a young season. Helping fill the girls' portion of the field with the absence of Denfeld from a year ago, the Ogchidaag couldn't have been more thrilled when first-year coach Travis Brown delivered them the news that they were among the entered teams.
"We marked it on our calendar and the girls were excited all season long," said Brown, who has several girls who attend Cloquet on his roster. "For them, this is almost more important than playoffs.
"It's a real homey-feel for us, just down the road," continued Brown, a former player and 2011 FDL graduate, now 24 years old. "In high school, I always wanted to come play in the Wood City Classic. We never got to then, but we got to now. And we're very grateful for that."
The same can be said about Pine City, which made their fourth-consecutive trip northbound on Interstate 35 last week. One of the more lively coaches of the tournament, Kyle Allen was quick to note of their appreciation of the annual event.
"This is something we're proud to be a part of," said Allen, whose Dragons lost a pair of greatly-entertaining contests to Denfeld 77-74 and Cloquet 63-61 while enjoying their time at the nearby AmericInn hotel in town. "I'm hoping we're penciled in next year. We love it."
Formerly of Houston, Texas, perhaps Allen's favorite part of the tournament comes in the available hospitality room, stocked again with beverages, sandwiches and chips for all staff, officials and coaches.
"Hospitality rooms are something we're real used to in Texas," Allen said. "So any time I can find a hospitality room up here, I'm pretty happy."
Allen also noted of the pristine gymnasium, equip with seemingly endless seating, ample space and plenty of purple.
"What an immaculate facility," Allen said afterward. "We're just appreciative to get a chance to use it a little bit."
First-year Cloquet Athletic Director Paul Riess was court-side for all eight games over the two days, welcoming teams, greeting officials and keeping the ship sailing along with much help from assistant Matt Carlson, parents, coaches and custodial staff.
Riess estimated he was at CMS for 18 hours for the event, never hesitating to put in his time over the holidays.
"It's a great tourney," Riess said. "And just a great opportunity for people to come and watch two days of basketball. It was a fun couple of days with some games that we're exciting until end."
That is was. Along with Wojtysiak's winner on Dec. 27, the Cloquet boys' prevailed over Pine City on Thursday, Dec. 28, with the Dragons' shot attempt to tie it at the buzzer off the mark. Like the girls, it was the first time the Lumberjack boys had won the title in years, earning the honors with co-champion Denfeld last week.
While Cloquet edged Pine City by a basket, they cruised by Cromwell-Wright 90-58 the night before, led by senior Tim Pokornowski's 31 points — a tournament high. Not only can the Duluth News Tribune's All-Area Player of the Year in football play on the gridiron, but also the basketball court.
"You can't coach that," said Cloquet coach Steve Battaglia of Pokornowski's immense talents.
"Everybody gets the hot hand at times for us," said senior classmate and fellow football teammate Bryce Turnbull. "It's all about who's feeling it and tonight, Tim's confidence was through the roof."
Battaglia agreed, noting this his boys have finally gotten their basketball legs following a magical football run to the Prep Bowl going until Thanksgiving. Now, however, they're seeking to find their shooting touch.
Speaking of shooting, plenty of kids went shooting across the gym floor with a smile after receiving their youth medals last week during halftime. The girls hosted the event Dec. 27, along with a pop-and-pie shootout to follow, while the boys did so Dec. 28, welcoming in an estimated crowd of 1,200 into the stands.
Battaglia's third-grade daughter, Olivia, received her medal one night, while his son, Jack, a fifth-grader, did so the next.
With a bag of chips in hand from the hospitality room Dec. 27, Battaglia, who brought back the Wood City Classic 12 years ago, summed up the resurgence of the event nicely.
"We drove to Hibbing three days in a row and that was enough of that," Battaglia said before bringing back the tournament in 2007. "As long as we can continue getting teams to come, we'll keep doing it."
"They're phenomenal hosts," Pine City's Kyle Allen said.
"Everybody has been nice to us," FDL's Travis Brown said. "If we get asked to come back, we'll be back — no hesitation."