Each December, Scott Antonutti hosts his girls basketball team over at his Esko home to enjoy the holidays together.
Everything from gifts to food, to laughs and memories are made. This year, they made a snowman and even had a snowball fight.
"Our softball players were pretty good," said Antonutti with a laugh.
Turns out, his hoops team isn't too shabby either, as Antonutti watched his Eskomos earn the 39th annual Coaches Classic title with their 52-41 win over Hermantown on Monday, Dec. 31, in Esko.
Winning the holiday event has become customary for the Eskomos and Antonutti, having won the home tournament nine times in his 11-year tenure.
That took victories over previously one-loss Cherry (59-51), Twin Cities-based St. Anthony Village (57-43) and the always-tough Hawks in an event that included eight girls teams and four boys squads totaling 28 games over four wintry days.
"It was probably the most consistent the girls had played all year - it was an all-around, good team effort," Antonutti said. "I feel good with where we're at."
That's probably because his Eskomos (9-4) have stretched their win streak to five games, having not lost over the past 17 days behind the play of All-Tournament team members Kristy DeMuth, Macy Sunnarborg and the return of Bridget Yellin from an ankle injury.
With the senior Yellin back, Esko keeps their opponents guessing with a mixture of in-your-face man-to-man defense, or primarily, a pesky zone scheme centered around the 6-foot-2 Yellin.
That's what happened to Hermantown, who only had three girls score Monday.
"They created some chaos when we tried to shoot," Hawks coach Beth Clark said. "They put us in a tough situation."
DeMuth meanwhile, was a situation to handle herself, as the 5-foot-6 guard scored a team-best 53 points during the three wins in being named the tournament's "Most Valuable Player." Just a junior, the ambidextrous DeMuth - able to shoot both right and left-handed effectively - is a four-sport standout in hoops, soccer, football and softball.
The Esko boys meanwhile, played their way to the tournament title as well, first downing Duluth Marshall 100-54 and then Cannon Falls 80-63 in the championship contest last Saturday, Dec. 29.
The Eskomos (5-4) averaged 90 points in their pair of victories, landing senior Camden Berger, junior Payton Wefel and event MVP in junior Trevor Spindler (43 points) on the All-Tournament team for a dangerously deep-shooting squad that is getting healthy and has won three in a row.
"It's exciting to see what we can do when we have everybody," first-year coach Derek Anderson said. "It's like 'pick your poison' when we have everyone. It's fun to watch."
As is the entire and always-busy event, held in memory of the late Esko teacher and coach Jack Johnson, who died from cancer.
A foot of snow recently dumped on the Northland shifted girls' games last week to New Year's Eve morning, but in the end, all dozen programs - junior varsity included - got in plenty of ball.
In fact, Esko activities director Chad Stoskopf has been helping run the event for the past 15 years. Along with help from the Esko Sports Alliance, he and the Esko athletic department run the place like a well-oiled machine.
Locker rooms are labeled, refs are abundant and games are constant. The concession stand is long-lined and a hospitality room is available for coaches, officials and staff. Stoskopf emails the media upon games finishing and the friendly tournament staff is second to none.
"It's fun to put on," said Stoskopf, who spent about 25 hours at the school for the event. "They are long days, but fun."
Clark, originally of Cromwell, concurred.
"As long as I can remember, we've been in it," Clark said. "I already told Chad we'd be happy to come back next year."
Dec. 28-29, 31
Championship - Esko 52, Hermantown 41
Third Place - Mesabi East 75, St. Anthony Village 59
Fifth Place - Cherry 55, Barnum 49
Seventh Place - Eveleth-Gilbert 65, North Woods 35
MVP - Kristy DeMuth, Esko
Macy Sunnarborg, Esko
Elly Schmitz, Hermantown
Ava Hill, Mesabi East
Sam Sibbet, St. Anthony Village
Kaelynn Kudis, Cherry
Championship - Esko 80, Cannon Falls 63
Third Place - Duluth Marshall 75, Hinckley-Finlayson 68
MVP - Trevor Spindler, Esko
Camden Berger, Esko
Payton Wefel, Esko
Isaac Illa, Cannon Falls
Samuel Lohn, Duluth Marshall
Anders Prater, Hinckley-Finlayson