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Boys basketball: Cards sunk in 7A final

Cromwell-Wright's Cameron Cahoon goes up for a shot against the Hinckley-Finlayson Jaguars. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal1 / 3
Cromwell-Wright's Micah Pocernich works through Hinkley-Finlayson's heavy defense on a shot at the net during the Friday, March 16, playoff matchup in Crosby. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal2 / 3
Disappointment is apparent as the clock winds down on the Cromwell-Wright Cardinals' season during the Friday, March 16, playoff final loss to Hinckley-Finlayson. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal3 / 3

Cromwell-Wright wasn't supposed to have the boys basketball season it had.

Bill Pocernich's team had only two seniors and only two returning players from last season's rotation. Yet, a rapidly-jelling group reached the Section 7A finals last week before falling 72-40 to Hinckley-Finlayson on Friday, March 16, in Crosby.

"We surpassed any expectations we could have had," Pocernich said. "We graduated four starters from the season before and had one senior in our regular rotation. We had lots of inexperienced guys, and we were not sure how they would adjust."

The answer was, "pretty well."

A 73-63 loss at Wrenshall on Jan. 23 put the Cardinals at 9-6. They didn't lose again until the section final, finishing their year 23-7.

"We had a bumpy road early," Pocernich said. "We had a tough early schedule."

Losses to good teams from Barnum, Cloquet, Duluth Denfeld, Moose Lake/Willow River and Wrenshall helped toughen the Cardinals, though, who reeled off 14 straight wins after the Wrenshall loss.

"We won at (section semifinalist) Nevis, and then beat them in the playoffs on a neutral court," Pocernich said. "Browerville was a good team, too." Cromwell-Wright beat them in the second round of the section tournament in double overtime.

But Hinckley-Finlayson was different. The Jaguars jumped on the Cardinals early and never let them off the mat.

"We knew they (Hinckley) would be good," Pocernich said. "We figured if they were off their game we might have a chance. But that didn't happen. They were almost perfect, especially in the first half, and we weren't really good early."

And so, a no-doubt loss sends the Cardinals into the off-season disappointed, but optimistic.

"We won the conference and subsection and were section runner-up," Pocernich said. "That's pretty good."

Yet, losing in the finals was still disappointing, even if it was expected.

"From one standpoint, it wasn't hard because we just got beat," Pocernich said. "It wasn't like if we make one shot we win. They jumped on us early; they played very hungry early and came ready to play. What we can take from that is that we have to start games like that, too. We need to take the fight to the opponent rather than the other way around, especially in a game like that."

Pocernich praised the Jaguars for their skill.

"Hinckley was just better than we were," he said. "They were more experienced, more athletic and they played great. Not many teams would have beaten them that night, and we sure didn't."

That said, six of the seven rotation players from this season will be back next year.

"The improvement from beginning to end was great," Pocernich said. "With the exception of Cameron Cahoon and Marcus (Pocernich), we didn't have players with significant varsity minutes. Cameron had pneumonia in February, too, so we didn't have a lot of experience. But everyone kept improving game to game and practice to practice. We played some quality basketball."

With seniors Kyle Pfistner and Cayden Karppinen lost to graduation, Pocernich is already excited for next season.

"After June 1 comes around and we can get back in the gym, we'll be working to get better," he said. "This is an extremely unselfish group, very team-oriented. When they don't play, they don't care as long as the team wins. And they don't like losing. If that means some players need to step into the background for a bit, they're OK, as long as we win."