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Wrens bring Brown Jug back home

The Wrenshall Wrens celebrate winning the Little Brown Jug on Friday, Jan. 5, against the Carlton Bulldogs in Carlton. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal1 / 6
Wrenshall's 25 Tyler Kelley goes up for a shot as Carlton's Matthew Hey attempts to block the shot. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal2 / 6
Carlton's Scott Rousseau cuts between Wrenshall Tyler Kelley, left, and Jared Kelley on a drive to the net on Friday, Jan. 5, in the Little Brown Jug contest in Carlton. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal3 / 6
The Carlton girls basketball team won the Brown Jug game 71-40 over Wrenshall Thursday, Jan. 4, in Carlton. Photo special to the Pine Journal4 / 6
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CARLTON — Back in 2007, Jon Bartczak was a part of the Wrenshall boys basketball team that beat rival Carlton and brought home the Brown Jug for the first time in 12 years.

Now the Wrens' coach in his third season on the sidelines, Bartczak was again carrying the jug out of the Bulldogs' gymnasium Friday, Jan. 5. After more than a decade later, winning the biggest game of the year still feels as sweet.

"It meant everything to me," said Bartczak before getting doused with water in the locker room following Wrenshall's 65-53 victory. "And now to see these guys and how much it means to them, it means a lot."

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 means everything to these communities separated by 4 miles along County Road 1.

The girls' jug, weighing in at 5 pounds, has been traveling between towns since 1980. The boys' 30-pound trophy looks more like a massive moonshine jug. 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.

While Wrenshall won the boys' game Jan. 5, Carlton claimed the girls' tilt a night earlier when the Bulldogs beat the Wrens 71-40, keeping the jug in Carlton, where it has remained for a number of years.

The Jug series on the boys' end, however, has been much more competitive, as evidenced from last week. While Carlton had claimed and defended the Jug the past two seasons — including edging Wrenshall three separate times last winter — the Wrens were seeking revenge.

"Bring it back home as we say," said Bartczak.

An effective first half made that look promising, as Wrenshall racked up a 42-26 lead, burring seven of their eight 3-pointers while putting on a long-range shooting clinic for the hundreds of fans in attendance.

In fact, the aggressive Wrens rarely ever see a shot they don't like.

"That's true," said junior Eli Krisak, who finished with a team-best 15 points, including three long balls. "We like to and do shoot a lot of threes."

"They chuck them up," added Bartczak. "We've talked about it all year. If it's not a three, it better be a layup. They love it."

While it looked like Wrenshall (9-1) was going to cruise — being in their locker room for less than three minutes during halftime — Carlton (5-7) has other ideas with the jug still sitting in their sideline.

Countering with an entertaining 11-0 run of their own to start the second, the Bulldogs but into the Wrens advantage and awoke the well-spirited student section. Third-year Carlton coach Jeswa Harris even raised his arms up and down several times to get them louder after Bartczak took two much-needed timeouts.

"Ten years later, it's still just as loud," said Bartczak when recalling his old playing days in the Carlton gym, appropriately named the 'Doghouse' above it's north wall.

Bartczak admitted his blood pressure rose steadily in the early parts of the second, as sturdy 6-foot-4 Bulldog sophomore Ben Soderstrom scored 10 of his game-high 18 points during the frame.

A Soderstrom bucket cut Carlton's deficit to 45-41, but that's as close as the hosts would get, as an 8-0 spurt sparked by four different Wrens' scorers put things away.

"They took everything we had and withstood it," Harris said of the Wrens.

Bartczak said sophomore Randy Summer's made free throw a that broke nearly eight-minute scoring drought to start the second was the key.

"It took the lid [off the hoop] finally," Bartczak said. "That was the big thing — just putting some points on the board."

That certainly helped the never-hesitant Wrens, who love to spread the wealth. Along with Krisak's offensive production, do-it-all senior Tyler Kelley counted 14 points, while Wimmer and sharp-shooting senior Nick Mattson had 12 each, despite Mattson rolling his ankle and leaving the game with 9:02 remaining in the first half.

Actually, both Mattson and Kelley are closing in on 1,000 career points this winter, Bartczak said, while Wimmer isn't far behind with still two-plus seasons to go.

A few eventual 1,000-point scorers on the same small-school team have the Wrens flying higher than ever. A year or two of taking their lumps, followed by a .500 campaign last season, Wrenshall has continued its climb as one of the area's success stories.

Bartczak has coached this group since their youth days, luckily getting to move up with them when the head coaching position opened three seasons ago. He connects well with his boys and they mesh with him. Thus, the expectations are high.

Currently, Wrenshall is one of the top two seeds in Section 7A, along with undefeated and top-ranked North Woods, which heroically advanced all the way to last year's Class A championship game and are favored to get back.

Don't tell that to Bartczak though, as they are hoping for a shot at the Grizzlies come March.

"You might be looking at at Wrenshall-North Woods final," Bartczak said. "It'll be fun."

"Hats off to those guys," added Harris.

Harris' bunch, meanwhile, graduated a bundle of seniors a year ago and are still searching for consistency. While the Bulldogs looked slow to start last week, they turned it on nicely at times.

Playing the energy of Harris — often leading chants for the fans and providing positive spirit to his players — Carlton has flashes. Along with Soderstrom's game-best efforts, fellow sophomore Matthew Santkuyl added nine points, while senior duo Matthew Hey and Jackson Mickle chipped in nine and seven, respectively.

"I'm proud of their fight," Harris said. "We were a little short at the end, but we'll use this as a building stone and imagine how tough we'll be if we play like this a whole game."

For Harris, it was his first-ever loss in a Jug game, snapping his previous unbeaten stretch at 2-for-2. He didn't care about that, rather than just enjoying another packed-to-the-rafters atmosphere.

"When I got hired, they said they wanted to fill this gym and bring the excitement back," Harris said. "I just want a good game for both sides of Wrenshall and Carlton. Tonight, the communities again came together to support our young kids. What a great game."

Especially for the boys, and now coach, who get to bring it back home again.

"It means so much to both schools," said Kelley, who battled playing with a broken foot and wrist in prior Jug games. "It's just so nice to have it now."

"This jug means everything," added Krisak, who took plenty of celebratory photos after winning his first Jug game last week. "If we don't win this game, it's not a successful season, no matter how far we go. I was waiting for this game all week. It's the only thing that goes through your head."