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State basketball preview: Cards in tourney for first time in 23 years

Cromwell-Wright's Micah Pocernich shoots a floater over Nevis' defense during the Section 5A semifinal in Brainerd. (Dave Harwig/Pine Journal)1 / 2
Cromwell-Wright's Cameron Cahoon makes a layup past Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa's Abe Peter during the Section 5A championship game Friday, March 15, at Crosby-Ironton High School. (Dave Harwig/Pine Journal)2 / 2

CROMWELL — When Cromwell-Wright advanced to state football tournament in November, the team agreed to bleach their hair.

Four months later, Isaac Shelton is one of the few teens left with his orangish-blonde curls impressively remaining.

"It's still there," Shelton said with a laugh.

It was a perfect plan by the Cromwell-Wright senior. Like Shelton's wavy bleached hair, the school's boys basketball team still remains as the Cardinals contend in this week's state tournament for the first time since 1996.

For Shelton, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound guard who was also a receiver and quarterback on the football team, heading to state for a second time in his final prep days isn't something he takes for granted.

"This was a goal we all set since we started playing in elementary school," said Shelton, one of six seniors. "It's an opportunity we have to enjoy. Not many kids get to go to state once, much less twice."

The Cardinals open against Ada-Borup in a Class A state quarterfinal Thursday, March 21, at 3 p.m. at the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena.

Semifinals and finals will be played Friday, March 22, and Saturday, March 23, at the nearby Target Center in Minneapolis.

If the unseeded Cardinals (25-3) want to play at the home of the Minnesota Timberwolves, they'll need to get by the No. 2 Cougars (28-1) first, while competing on top of the Golden Gophers' historic raised floor.

On Friday, March 15, on the hardwood floor in Crosby-Ironton's gym, Cromwell-Wright won the Section 5A title 65-52 over Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa. There, throngs of red- and white-clad fans cheered on the Cardinals, hoping to fly to their first state appearance in 23 years.

That they did, behind a game-high 37 points from Micah Pocernich, the dynamic right-handed junior seemingly never missing.

"They didn't have any answers for him," said coach Bill Pocernich, also doubling as Micah's father. "He hit his first shot and didn't stop."

Much like Cromwell-Wright, who has now won 15 in a row, including an unbeaten record against Class A foes this winter.

One more was added to that tally last week, when after the game's final buzzer, Coach Pocernich and his assistant Dean Levinski, rose both arms in celebration, only to share an abundance of hugs with friends, family and players afterward.

"It's was a dream come true," said Micah Pocernich. "Just incredible."

The week at school has been filled with plenty of support. As you drive through Cromwell, "Section Champs" is written on businesses glass windows, while Tuesday evening, March 19, they hosted a team dinner in the school cafeteria with many family attending.

Their game at "The Barn" on Thursday will certainly be busy, as senior Marcus Pocernich — Micah's older brother — said many alumni are planning to go.

"They'll be coming out of the woodwork," he said with a laugh.

Jokes aside, the Cardinals are looking to contend, or even upend, the Cougars, who are a tall task with 6-8 center Mason Miller leading a team with eight straight wins.

Conversely, Cromwell-Wright's tallest post player is senior Cameron Cahoon, at a generous 6 feet.

Asked of his strategy to move Miller around, Cahoon, a running back on the football team, was quick to answer.

"The lower, the better," he said. "Just like in football."

And while the football team has a perennial presence at the state tournament, these well-balanced Cardinals — both Pocernichs, Cahoon, Shelton and senior Jaden Gronner all averaging double-digits in scoring — are relishing their final time together on the court.

"This is one of the best highlights of my life," Marcus Pocernich said.

"I'm really happy for this group of kids," added his father. "They enjoy each other. They like each other. I think they deserve it."

As do their coaches — it's Bill Pocernich's first state tournament in his 23 years as coach and Levinski's first since 2001 — when heading the Cloquet girls.

"It's great to get to experience this with them both," Cahoon said. "They make my day brighter. I love them guys to death."

Class A Boys State Basketball

Quarterfinals: Thursday, March 21

At Williams Arena, Minneapolis

• Spring Grove (23-4) vs. No. 1 Springfield (27-2), 11 a.m.

• No. 5 Christ's Household of Faith (23-5) vs. No. 4 Henning (28-1), 1 p.m.

• Cromwell-Wright (25-3) vs. No. 2 Ada-Borup (28-1), 3 p.m.

• Westbrook-Walnut Grove (23-7) vs. No. 3 North Woods (27-2), 5 p.m.

Consolation and semifinals: Friday, March 22

At Williams Arena, Target Center, Minneapolis; Concordia University, St. Paul

Finals: Saturday, March 23

At Williams Arena and Concordia University

Follow the games

Twitter: @tylerkorby

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