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Boys basketball playoffs: Big-shot Bulldogs hungry for upsets

Carlton's Matt Santkuyl scores in front of Cherry's Iziac Martin during a Section 7A play-in game Monday, March 4. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 3
Carlton's Scott Rousseau shoots a jumper during a play-in game versus Cherry on Monday, March 4. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 3
Carlton's Jake Santkuyl scores in front of Cherry's Nick Peterson during the Section 7A play-in game Monday, March 4. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 3

Jeswa Harris knows all about what basketball brings in March, as the Carlton coach began his on Jan. 15.

That's when Spencer Rousseau sank a nearly half-court buzzer-beater for the Bulldogs to beat rival Wrenshall, sending a sea of teammates and fans into hysteria in a perfect precursor to what is well-known as March Madness.

This time of year, marquee matchups, unthinkable upsets and wild, once-in-a-lifetime shots are the norm.

And although the 14th seed in Section 7A, Carlton is the top dog in regard to making game-winners, as Rousseau's heave best showed, anything is possible.

"Everybody gets in the big dance," said Harris of his upset-minded Bulldogs. "You spend your whole offseason and season for this. It's time to compete."

Compete they did earlier this week, as Carlton clobbered Cherry 85-41 in a Section 7A play-in game Monday, March 4, before a playoff-buzzed gymnasium in Carlton.

Bulldog brothers Matt and Jake Santkuyl scored 28 and 16 points, respectively, while the big-shot Rousseau added 11 in a game that Carlton led 41-22 by halftime and was never in doubt.

The Bulldogs (8-18) clashed with third-seeded Lakeview Christian Academy (18-7) at the University of Wisconsin-Superior; results were unavailable by press time. A win would out them in the quarterfinals Saturday, March 9, at 7:15 p.m. at Minnesota Duluth.

That's not unthinkable, as Carlton came up just short of LCA on Feb. 5, with the Lions winning 90-74 in a game the Bulldogs weren't even fully healthy for.

In fact, to say injuries have plagued Carlton would be an understatement.

Harris noted that Matt Santkuyl (ankle), Jake Santkuyl (leg), Miles Bennett (ankle), Ryan Gray (ankle) and Trevor Ojibway (back) have all been sidelined this winter, adding that in their 26 regular-season games, about five were played in full health.

That doesn't even mention the absence of 6-foot-4 big-man Ben Soderstrom, who had to undergo a second surgery on his fractured leg during football season, missing all of basketball.

Asked if he has a medical kit on him at all times, Harris quipped: "My assistant coach it next to his hip."

Still, among all of their injuries, the Bulldogs are still standing and running on all cylinders this week, making them — as well as others — hungry for an upset or two.

"I'm proud with how we've come out of the darkness of the tunnel," Harris said. "I think they learned a lot about themselves more than anything. It's made us a better team and brought us closer together."

Together, fellow local schools Wrenshall (10-17) and South Ridge (7-19) also had play-in games Monday, March 4, with the 15th-seeded Wrens whizzing by Littlefork-Big Falls 102-52, while the No. 16 Panthers pounded Northland-Remer 82-58. Both also played Wednesday, March 6, in first-round action at press time.

As too did Fond du Lac Ojibwe (7-17), with the 12th-seeded Ogichidaag playing at No. 5 Chisholm (16-9), a team FDL defeated 63-55 on Jan. 18.

A second win over the Bluestreaks would put the Ogichidaag in the Saturday, March 9, 2:30 p.m. quarters against likely No. 4 Deer River (13-13), a squad FDL lost to by just a point in December.

Thus, the high-scoring Ogichidaag — tallying nearly 70 points a night — are not to be overlooked in 7A. Teammates Jordan Brown, Conner Barney and Avery Misquadace are averaging 24, 17 and 15 points per game, respectively.

"We can make a run," coach Earl Otis said earlier this week. "Hopefully, the ball falls in the right place."

"But, we're on the same side as North Woods," said Otis with a laugh.

The Grizzlies (23-2) are the two-time defending 7A champs, finishing as Class A runners-up in both 2017 and 2018.

Section 7AA: Eskomos enter title defense

Meanwhile, Esko has won six of the past seven crowns in Section 7AA, as the Eskomos will look to do so again by the end of next week.

The section's top seed sure started on the right foot, with their 73-48 victory over Aitkin on Tuesday, March 5, in Esko.

The Eskomos (18-9), winners of eight of their last 10, are playing some of their best hoops as of late, topping fellow 7AA contenders Pequot Lakes, Crosby-Ironton, Proctor and Virginia in the process.

"We're feeling pretty good right now," said first-year coach Derek Anderson on Tuesday, March 5, as Camden Berger, Payton Wefel and Trevor Spindler combined for 35 points against the Gobblers.

Esko faces quarterfinal foe, No. 5 Pierz (15-10), on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Duluth Denfeld. The semifinals and finals are set for March 12 and 14 at Minnesota Duluth.

Esko placed fifth in Class AA a year ago.

"They have some hunger to get back down there," Anderson said.

Elsewhere in 7AA on Tuesday, fourth-seeded Moose Lake-Willow River (19-8) was beat by Pierz 60-55, while seventh-seeded Barnum (13-14) fell to host Crosby-Ironton, 50-25.

"Essentially, you've built your boat," added ML-WR coach Wes Cummins of the postseason. "Now, you have to see if it float."

Section 5A: Pocernich-paced Cards are contenders

Still floating along in Section 5A is Cromwell-Wright, as the top-seeded Cardinals are seeking their small school's first state tournament since 1996.

That could be likely, as Cromwell-Wright (21-3) is winners of 11 in a row, while having not lost to a Class A opponent all winter.

That's much in part of the Pocernich bothers, Marcus and Micah, along with a contingent of competitive teammates like Jaden Gronner, Cameron Cahoon and Isaac Shelton.

Micah Pocernich, a junior who scored a school-record 39 points last week against Nashwauk-Keewatin, leads the way at 19.7 points per game, while he has five teammates averaging 7.3 or more.

"They complement each other pretty well," said coach Bill Pocernich, Marcus and Micah's father. "You have to guard all five spots and when can shoot with range, that can pose some challenges."

With Micah, Marcus and Gronner all shooting above 33 percent from the 3-point line, accounting for 140 triples, the Cardinals aren't aren't shy of firing it.

Not to mention, their defense is allowing a a Class A best 41.3 points a night.

"It's been really special," said Micah Pocernich of playing with his brother and for dad. "But basically, our whole team is like a family. Most of us have all been together since third grade."

Now, that family is trying to get to the state tournament for the first time in over two decades.

The Cardinals host McGregor (7-19) Thursday, March 7, at 5 p.m.

Saturday's potential quarterfinals will follow at Pequot Lakes at 6 p.m., with the semis and finals set for March 11 and 15. Other challengers include Pine River-Backus (22-4), Nevis (16-10) and the defending champs, Hinckley-Finlayson (19-7).

"We've got a target on our backs," said Micah of his team that placed runner-up in 5A a year ago. "In our section, anyone can beat anyone on any night. We're going to have to come ready to play."

"We've got a lot of work to do," added coach Pocernich. "We're just trying to make this last as long as we can."