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Pantsar, talented lineup fuel Esko's winning streak

Esko's Ryan Pantsar shoots a three-pointer against Cloquet on Jan. 29. Pantsar made 3 of 4 three-pointers he shot. File photo/Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

Entering the Tuesday, Feb. 27, showdown with defending section champion Crosby-Ironton, the Esko boys basketball team had reeled off 10 consecutive wins and were sporting a gaudy 21-4-0 record. Much of the reason for the Eskomos success is a team deep on the bench and loaded with stars who can put up big numbers at any time, making them hard to defend.

"I like this team and how deep we are," Eskomos coach Mike Devney said. "We have four guys who can go off for a 30-point night at any time, and these guys are all so unselfish that to them, it doesn't matter who scores just so they win."

An obvious key to the Eskomos 20-win season has been the likes of 7-foot-3 center Adam Trapp; the 6-foot-5, versatile Quinn Fischer; another 6-foot versatile guard and swingman Cam Berger; as well as another 6-footer, Ryan Pantsar, who is equally versatile and has turned into the area's best 3-point shooter.

"Ryan is athletic and he spent a ton of time in the weight room this year getting bigger and stronger and that has helped his range," Devney said. "He puts in a ton of time in the gym in the off-season and it is paying off. Ryan is right there with some of the best 3-point shooters we have ever had in our program with guys like Casey Steniger, Marc Peterson and Jackson Lindquist."

A great 3-point shooter is usually lucky if they can shoot 35 percent from that distance, but Pantsar has been lights out shooting 50 percent on the season, which is unheard. Against Two Harbors last week, Pantsar went 9-for-14 from the 3-point line and scored 37 points in just 20 minutes of playing time.

"In warmups, I was concentrating more on shooting the shots at game speed so I was ready when the shot were open during the game," Pantsar said of his performance against the Agates. "When I made my first three shots I was smiling because I was surprised myself, after my team just kept feeding me the ball."

Devney agreed with Pantsar's assessment.

"That was Ryan's best offensive game of the year," Devney said. "Two Harbors didn't make any changes defensively against him and our guys just kept feeding him the ball."

Having a player like Pantsar keeps the defense honest and doesn't allow them to collapse inside against Trapp. In turn, that allows others such as Berger and Fischer to do what they do best: Use their athleticism to work one-on-one and free them up for easier shots and runs to the basket.

"A player who can hit the 3-pointer change the way a team plays defense against your team and we see that happening at times," Devney said. "When Ryan, Quinn, Cam, Payton Koskela, Eric Rish, Corey Kauma and Payton Wefel are hitting the three, it definitely opens it up for one of our post players."

Over the last week, the Eskomos proved their ability to adapt without Trapp in the lineup by notching back-to-back wins over state-ranked St. Croix Lutheran Academy and St. Cloud Cathedral. St. Croix came in with a 17-6 record and Cathedral had a record of 18-4 prior the Eskomos knocking them both off in tightly played games.

"I like the way we are playing right now," Devney said. "This is a very unselfish group and they have the knack of finding the matchup that is in our favor, and many times, they can do that without us calling a timeout. This team is smart enough to see a mismatch and our guys will find the weak link of the defense. This group is instinctive and very game-savvy."

According to Devney, the Eskomos have just begun to hit their stride from the 3-point stripe and he feels that the best is yet to come this season from long distance.

"We had a lot of guys who were injured after last season and they couldn't spend the time shooting in the summer like they normally would," Devney said. "Our kids are now finding their shooting groove and they are finally getting their shooting stroke down and you can really see their confidence."

Traditionally most local teams struggle to find seven or eight players who can play at the highest level, but the Eskomos are known to go nine or 10 deep in critical situations, but Devney feels all 13 players on his roster are able to contribute something in order to make the team better.

"We have a very, very good group of perimeter players and every guy on our roster is important and a team player," Devney said. "The guys we have no how to finish on offense and they play hard on defense and that is a great combination."

Devney hopes that combination leads the Eskomos back to the state tournament again this season.

Esko dominated Crosby-Ironton 74-34 on Tuesday night. Their next game is Friday, March 2, at 7:15 p.m. vs. Virginia.