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Girls hoops section preview: Cards, Eskomos poised for postseason push

Esko's Sarah Wagemaker shoots a layup between Hermantown defenders during the Coaches Classic girls' championship game on Dec. 31. The top-seeded Eskomos will face eighth-seeded Denfeld on Thursday, Feb. 28. Pine Journal file1 / 4
Barnum's Jordyn Marine scores past the defense of Cromwell-Wrights's Amber Collman on Dec. 3. Sixth-seeded Barnum is scheduled to play third-seeded Pequot Lakes on Thursday, Feb. 28. Pine Journal file2 / 4
Cromwell-Wright's Taya Hakamaki shoots a 3-pointer over Mountain Iron-Buhl's Brooke Niska in January. The Cards are the No. 1 seed in the Section 7A playoffs. Pine Journal file3 / 4
South Ridge sophomore Courtney Sajdak goes up for a layup in the Panthers' win over Fond du Lac Ojibwe on Feb. 4. South Ridge was the No. 9 seed heading into the playoff game Wednesday, Feb. 27, versus Ely. Pine Journal file4 / 4

While at Cromwell-Wright girls basketball practice earlier this week, Liz Risacher was directed by coach Jeff Gronner to go play 1-on-1.

And not only against one Hakamaki teammate, but two.

Combining for nearly 50 points per game this winter, along with their natural knack on the court, juniors Taya and Shaily Hakamaki are arguably the two finest prep players around.

So when Risacher was asked to go challenge the pair of prolific playmakers, all the senior could do was laugh.

"I said, 'It's only fair I get to start with the ball,'" quipped Risacher, who ensued to hit a 3-pointer and take the lead. "As soon as they got the ball, there was no going back."

Where the Cardinals want to get back to is the state tournament. They certainly have a shot — pardon the pun — as after a year hiatus from Minneapolis, Cromwell-Wright (21-1) is the top seed entering this week's Section 7A playoffs, unbeaten for the last 62 days and winners of their last 15 straight.

That's much in part from the high-scoring Hakamakis, as Taya is averaging around 27 points per night and Shaily 21. Mix in contributors such as relatives Natalee and Amanda Hakamaki with the likes of Emmalee Hoover, Andrea Pocernich and the deep-shooting Risacher and these Cardinals can play.

"They're pretty hungry to do their best and get back down there," said Gronner of the state tournament, where Cromwell-Wright capped back-to-back trips in 2016 and 2017 by placing third in Class A. "We can do it, but it's not going to be easy. You can't take anything for granted in March."

Especially among mighty Mountain Iron-Buhl, the eight-time defending 7A champs.

While the second-seeded Rangers (21-5) handed the Cardinals their lone defeat, 57-49 on Dec. 28, Cromwell-Wright delivered the favor in a 78-58 win on Jan. 21, snapping MIB's then-112-game winning streak against Northland opponents.

"Until someone can knock them off (in March), they're the top dog," Gronner said of MIB.

An effective offense, scoring 73.1 points a night, and deflating defense, allowing just 39.6, has the Cardinals posing a real threat to the throne.

Risacher, the school's homecoming queen who also runs cross-country, plays softball and raises cattle on her beef farm in Wright, even forewent a prestigious 4-H showing in South Dakota in hopes making it to her third and final state tournament.

"I really believe we have the potential to do that again," Risacher said.

Cromwell-Wright was scheduled to open with 16th-seeded Northeast Range on Wednesday, Feb. 27 — results weren't available by press time — with the potential of facing South Ridge on Saturday, March 2, at 1 p.m. in Grand Rapids.

For the ninth-seeded Panthers (14-9), who were scheduled to play at No. 8 Ely on Wednesday, one more crack at the Cardinals would be satisfying. Certainly for senior Celia Olesiak and her busy family, playing alongside younger sister, Adella, as well as for her father, Brad, and older sibling, Mikayla — both as her coaches.

"Just having my family be such a part of this basketball season is really special," said Celia Olesiak. "This will definitely be one of my best memories. I'll always have it to look back on."

Elsewhere in 7A, No. 3 seed Cherry (19-7) is a contender, while locally, No. 7 Carlton (15-10) hosted Cook County Wednesday at press time, while No. 18 Wrenshall (3-23) was at MIB.

On Monday, Feb. 25, the Wrens upset Silver Bay 37-36 behind 20 points from Hailey Tauzell, while Fond du Lac Ojibwe (2-16) fell at Chisholm 56-40. Tannia Misquadace led the Ogichidaag with 13 points.

The 7A quarterfinals are Saturday, March 2, in Grand Rapids. The semifinals and finals are March 5 and 7 at Minnesota Duluth.

Section 7AA 'wide open'

Romano Gym will also be busy hosting the 7AA field, where the title can be claimed by a variety of state-hopeful squads.

In fact, with eight teams sporting winning records, including some of our area's most bona fide scorers in years, Esko coach Scott Antonutti anticipated any number of schools could be headed to Twin Cities in a couple of weeks.

"I would say it's as wide open as it's been," Antonutti said. "There could be all sorts of different scenarios."

Atop that list are co-No. 1 seeds Esko (20-6) and Proctor (20-6), while second-seeded Mesabi East (19-7) are the defending champs and co-No. 2 Crosby-Ironton (18-8) a scary team.

Third seeds Pequot Lakes (16-10) and Duluth Marshall (19-7) can also play, the Hilltoppers having one of top scoring tandems around in Giana Kneepkens and Grace Kirk.

Fourth-seeded Aitkin (15-10) and Virginia (10-16) are also not to be overlooked.

"You go almost any of those directions," Antonutti said.

The direction his Eskomos want to go is back to state, where they last were in 2017. A half-dozen of his current players were on that team, including high-scoring junior Kristy DeMuth and seniors Bridget Yellin, Macy Sunnarborg and Kaitlyn Bergerson.

While Esko was bounced by section Cinderella Mesabi East last winter, the Eskomos are expecting to be ready this time around, but have firsthand experience that nothing is guaranteed.

"It's important just to focus on the game, not what happened last year, because anything can happen," Bergerson said.

The Eskomos have plenty of weapons, including the 6-foot-1 Yellin, circled by an abundance of shooters, featuring the school's all-time leader in 3-pointers with Sunnarborg.

"We have some weapons," Antonutti said. "I think we're a tough-out."

While the Eskomos host Duluth Denfeld on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m., fifth-seeded Moose Lake-Willow River (15-11) travels to Aitkin, while sixth-seeded Barnum (11-15) heads to Pequot Lakes. If they both win, Esko and ML-WR will meet Saturday, March 2, at Romano Gym at 1 p.m.

The Rebels are a spooky dark horse not to be forgotten either, especially in this field, set for quarters, semis and finals March 2, 6 and 8, respectively, all at Minnesota Duluth.

"The thing is, anyone in the section thinks they can beat anyone," ML-WR coach Padrick Judd said. "That's what makes it so fun."