ESKO — As the Esko boys basketball team prepared to defend their tournament title against Duluth Marshall last weekend, the Eskomos got the best pre-game motivator possible.

Teammate Trevor Spindler hops in on crutches.

The Esko senior is unarguably one of the purest prep players on area courts, using a quick first step and ability to hit shots from seemingly anywhere — a next-level recruit. That all changed on Dec. 14 when Spindler was involved in a car crash that left him was multiple injuries, including a fractured pelvis.

That said, doctors informed Spindler that basketball doesn’t look likely for him anytime soon.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been told,” he said. “Basketball is everything to me. It’s what I live to play.”

Esko's James Legarde scores in front of Marshall School's Samuel Lohn during the Coaches Classic championship game Saturday, Dec. 28, in Esko. (Dave Harwig / Pine Journal)
Esko's James Legarde scores in front of Marshall School's Samuel Lohn during the Coaches Classic championship game Saturday, Dec. 28, in Esko. (Dave Harwig / Pine Journal)

Playing for yet another Coaches Classic crown against the Hilltoppers, the host Eskomos were far too much to handle in their 94-52 victory Saturday, Dec. 28, putting a bow on the 40th annual event.

And there, just recently cleared from his hospital bed, was Spindler, supporting from the sidelines on the bench with his closest of friends. It was his first basketball game since the crash.

“We’re just glad that he’s alive,” said Esko coach Derek Anderson, who walked alongside Spindler to an upstairs classroom to surprise the team prior to Saturday night’s contest.

“I was surprised to see myself here,” Spindler said. “It’s good to be back seeing all these guys. I’m just happy to watch them again. They mean everything to me.”

Spindler certainly meant everything to the Eskomos before his absence, as Anderson had high praise for one of his ultra-talented squad’s top offensive and defensive threats, not to mention his ability to make plays during the most clutch moments.

“He’s the guy everybody looks to. You just give him the ball and get out of the way,” Anderson said. “It’s not somebody you can replace. We’re just asking guys to do a little bit more than what was originally asked of them.”

And that they have.

With the likes of seniors Payton Wefel, James LeGarde and juniors Riley Fischer and Eli Blue, the Eskomos (7-2) have won all five of their games since Spindler’s departure, including coasting through the Coaches Classic, adding a 95-77 victory over North Woods to their 42-point rout of the Hilltopppers.

“We’re playing for him,” Fischer said.

In their two tournament games, Esko scored an average of 94.5 points per night, and their average margin of victory was 30.

Esko's Riley Fischer makes a layup during the Coaches Classic championship game Satursday, Dec. 28, with Marshall School in Esko.  (Dave Harwig / Pine Journal)
Esko's Riley Fischer makes a layup during the Coaches Classic championship game Satursday, Dec. 28, with Marshall School in Esko. (Dave Harwig / Pine Journal)

“They’re always toward the top, if not the top,” Duluth Marshall coach Thomas Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s Hilltoppers had a 66-64 comeback win over Hinckley-Finlayson in their opener. The Jaguars also fell to the Grizzlies of North Woods, a program that has been to the last three consecutive Class A state championship games, placing runner-up each time.

Yet, even the Grizzlies couldn’t contain Esko’s quartet of Wefel (30), LeGarde (30), Blue (23) and Fischer (6), totaling 88 of their 95 points on a game played Dec. 16 due to adjusting for North Woods’ holiday schedule and late addition to the event.

That kind of production has the Eskomos seeking a return trip to what would be their seventh state tournament appearance in the last eight years.

“We’ve got a taste of what its like to play those tournament teams,” Wefel said. “The goal is to get back down there.”

And they’ll look to do so with their best buddy along their side.

“We know he’s there for us and will be our biggest cheerleader on the bench,” LeGarde said.

“I’ll be there every step of the way,” Spindler said.

Coaches Classic

Monday, Dec. 23

Esko 95, North Woods 77

Friday, Dec. 27

Duluth Marshall 66, Hinckley-Finlayson 64

Saturday, Dec. 28

Championship — Esko 94, Duluth Marshall 52

Third Place — North Woods 72, Hinckley-Finlayson 66