CLOQUET - During his first year as the boys basketball coach at Cloquet, Steve Battaglia took his team up to Hibbing for a holiday tournament, totaling almost 10 hours of travel in three cold December days.
"That was enough of that," said Battaglia, now the high school's principal and in his 14th season leading the Lumberjacks.
In the winter of 2006, Battaglia, a former 1998 Cloquet graduate, helped bring back the Wood City Classic, a long-standing holiday event of the past.
"It's the best tournament around," said Pine City coach Kyle Allen, having brought his Dragons up for the past five seasons. "It's A-plus."
As was the competition Dec. 27-29 at Cloquet Middle School. While the four-team girls field was lopsided with unbeatens Cloquet and Northwestern High School in Wisconsin sharing the title, the parody in the quartet of boys' squads was perfect for fans braving the winter weather.
In fact, in an event that was extended by a day due to Mother Nature's wintry mix, the four boys games between host Cloquet, Pine City, Cromwell-Wright and Duluth Denfeld were decided by a total of 22 points - or an average difference of just 5.5 points per contest.
While Duluth Denfeld downed previously-unbeaten Pine City 80-72 and slipped by prior-undefeated Cromwell-Wright 61-56, the Lumberjacks edged the Dragons by just six points and the small-school Cardinals by a bucket - in which Cromwell-Wright had a winning shot bounce off the rim at the buzzer.
"It was a good couple of days of basketball," Battaglia said. "All of the games could have gone either way."
Luckily for the Lumberjacks (5-5), they didn't, as Cloquet countered punches with Cromwell-Wright and Pine City both, before hitting shots to win a pair of games that included a dizzying 15 ties and 14 lead changes combined throughout 72 minutes of entertaining action.
"We had to play pretty well to win either of those," said Battaglia, his Class AAA Lumberjacks bigger than both double-A Pine City and single-A Cromwell-Wright. "They're both good small schools."
"We were pretty fired up," added Cloquet junior Markus Pokornowski, who scored a team-high 31 points and shot 64.3-percent from the field over the tournament. "We're feeling pretty good going into January after getting these two wins. We were on a drought, but now we're really starting to get on a roll with it."
That they are, Cloquet now winners of three straight, much like the upbeat Dragons, who won their opening six games entering the Wood City and the gritty Cardinals, their first four.
Speaking of Cromwell-Wright, the Pocernich brothers were as advertised, with senior Marcus (33) and junior Micah (32) totaling 65 points for the tournament. Their father, Bill, is the team's longtime coach and even though they came up eight points shy in two defeats, the hard-playing Cardinals (4-2) showed they can flat-out play with the big boys.
"We went toe-to-toe and didn't finish the job, but we'll move forward," Bill Pocernich said. "We knew we'd face some pretty stiff competition. We fell short in both, but we gained some confidence and learned some stuff we can apply moving forward. These teams were as talented or more talented than maybe anyone we'll see in our section."
While the well-coached Cardinals are one of the heavy favorites in Section 5A - runners-up a year ago - Pine City could cause some noise in Section 7AA with their ability to hustle, hit perimeter shots and play energetically behind their boisterous, eighth-year coach in Allen.
Allen actually taught in Houston prior to becoming a Dragon. Thus, the hospitality room on site has always been one of his favorite pre- and post-game Wood City stops.
"It reminds me of my time in Texas," Allen said. "I love it."
The tournament itself is award-winning simplicity. Games are run on time, the staff happy to serve and accommodating. Cloquet activities director Paul Riess was on hand for the event and along with fellow coaches, helped maneuver schedules quickly and effectively for all teams dealing with inclement weather.
Allen said his team's hotel stay at the AmericInn in Cloquet was even adjusted to fit their new weekend slate.
"Hats off to Cloquet - you don't see this everywhere," said Allen. "We are so happy they continue to ask us back."
Wood City Classic
Cloquet 62, Cromwell-Wright 60
Duluth Denfeld 61, Cromwell-Wright 56
Cloquet 58, Pine City 52
Duluth Denfeld 80, Pine City 72
Cloquet 70, St. Croix Prep 25
Northwestern 66, St. Croix Prep 41
Cloquet 62, Minneapolis Edison 18
Northwestern 73, Minneapolis Edison 34