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Boys basketball: Eskomos enter title defense, ice Blue Devils in 7AA semifinal

Esko's Trevor Spindler shoots a 3-pointer over Virginia's Jayden Bernard during Tuesday night's Section 7AA semifinal game at UMD. Dave Harwig / For the Pine Journal1 / 8
Esko's Corey Kauma scores in front of Virginia's Jayden Bernard during Tuesday night's Section 7AA semifinal basketball game at UMD. Dave Harwig / For the Pine Journal2 / 8
Esko's Camden Berger shoots over Virginia's Kyle Williams during Tuesday night's Section 7AA semifinal game at UMD. Berger scored his 1,000th career point in the second half of the game. Dave Harwig / For the Pine Journal3 / 8
Esko's Payton Wefel shoots a jumper during Tuesday night's Section 7AA semifinal vs. Virginia. Dave Harwig / For the Pine Journal4 / 8
Esko’s Trevor Spindler (25) gets tied up with Pierz’s Jonah Prokott (24) in the first half of the Eskomos’ win at home Monday, March 11. (Jed Carlson / / 8
Esko’s Payton Wefel (20) drives past Pierz’s Peter Schommer (0) in the first half of the Eskomos’ win in Esko on Monday, March 11. (Jed Carlson / / 8
Esko’s Camden Berger (35) looks to dish off the ball after getting around Pierz’s Peter Schommer (0) in the first half of the Eskomos’ win Monday, March 11. (Jed Carlson / / 8
Esko’s Trevor Spindler (25) launches a shot over Pierz’s Jonah Prokott (24) in the first half of the Eskomos’ win. (Jed Carlson / / 8

Seconds after Camden Berger rattled in his 1,000th career point on a 3-pointer earlier this week, Esko teammates mobbed the senior in celebratory excitement.

"I was swarmed," said Berger with a laugh.

Berger and the Eskomos are hoping to swarm one another once more this week when they play for the Section 7AA championship after their 69-46 semifinal victory over Virginia on Tuesday, March 12, at Minnesota Duluth.

Playing at Romano Gym again tonight, Thursday, March 14, top-seeded Esko (20-9) will face No. 3 Pequot Lakes (23-6) at 7 p.m. as the Eskomos are in their eighth consecutive final and seeking an unprecedented sixth title in seven years.

If they play anything like they did Tuesday, they could add to that total, as against the upset-minded Blue Devils (16-13), the Eskomos didn't waste any time in icing their opponent's would-be hope.

Esko erupted from the opening tip, beginning the game on a 17-4 spurt, including a 13-0 run. After a 34-22 halftime advantage, Esko extended their lead, using their seemingly endless depth and effectiveness around the rim.

"We talk about that quite a bit — we want to start each half strong," said first-year Esko coach Derek Anderson. "We take it a chunk at a time and did that tonight."

Virginia's Jayden Bernard added a valiant 21 points, but it wasn't nearly enough.

"The energy level they started with caught us off-guard," first-year Blue Devils coach Derek Aho told the Duluth News Tribune afterward. "Once we started to respond, it was too late. They just have so many weapons."

While Berger had a game-high 23 points, junior teammate Trevor Spindler added 21, as nine Eskomos etched their names in the box score.

Spindler had 14 of his points in the first half — including seven in opening several minutes — while Berger added 15 in the second, with his right-wing 3-pointer making it 63-37 with 6:12 to go and sending his teammates storming his way.

"It was one of my goals, but an even bigger goal is getting back to the state tournament," said Berger, whose team placed fifth in Class AA a year ago. "And, doing some damage down there."

To do so, Esko will have to upend the Patriots, a team they already beat 63-53 on Feb. 5. Pequot Lakes ousted Greenway in Tuesday's other semifinal, 71-56.

Following that game, Spindler started and Berger finished off the Blue Devils in the nightcap, as the pair of playmakers made the Romano Gym baskets look as big as the ocean.

"The rim felt pretty wide for me and Camden," said Spindler, who also scored a career-best 37 points in Esko's quarterfinal win over Pierz Monday. "We had a lot of confidence."

Rightfully so, as Esko's now won seven straight, including a number against section opponents. Even more impressively, they graduated several starters from last year's state squad, including 7-foot-3 Adam Trapp and 500-plus win coach Mike Devney is now coaching at Duluth Denfeld.

Still, here sit the Eskomos, one win away from getting to their seventh state appearance in eight years. And, one victory shy of swarming with their teammates one more time with the title.

"That'd be pretty sweet," said Spindler.

"Nobody expected us to be here — everybody counted us out," added the 30-year-old coach in Anderson. "We've got a little chip on our shoulder. And we're definitely hungry."

Esko 34-35—69

Virginia 22-24—46

Esko — Riley Fischer 4, Payton Wefel 7, Camden Berger 23, Trevor Spindler 21, Corey Kauma 4, Jon Stodola 2, James Legarde 4, Peyton Koskela 2, Eli Blue 2. Totals 31 3-5 69.

3-point goals — Berger, Spindler 3.

Virginia — Jayden Bernard 21, Nick Peters 5, Jack Perala 2, Tyler Herberg 4, Kyle Williams 4, Joe Hafdahl 4, Donnie Burress 6. Totals 20 1-5 46.

3-point goals — Bernard 2, Peters, Burress 2.