Cromwell-Wright, Esko basketball players grapple with cancellations

Cromwell-Wright girls and Esko boys basketball players grapple with tournament cancellations; communities rally to embrace teams.

James LeGarde (3) of Esko controls the ball near Matthew Erickson (34) of Marshall School during the Eskomos' win in Section 7AA semifinal game March 11 at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth. Esko's game against Pierz in the section final and the state tournament were canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis. (Pine Journal file photo)

Esko boys basketball coach Derek Anderson was preparing his fourth grade students for a science lesson Friday, March 13, when he noticed some of his senior players filing into the back of the room.

Once his fourth-graders got started on their lesson, Anderson made his way to the boys and asked what was going on. He already knew the team’s Section 7AA championship game against Pierz — scheduled for later that day — would be played without fans in the arena, but the boys told him the game and the rest of the boys’ and girls’ section and state tournaments had been canceled by the Minnesota State High School League to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“So we’re just done then?” Anderson asked his players.

One hundred forty miles south, Cromwell-Wright players had finished their pregame shoot around at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and had gone back to the hotel to get ready for their state semifinal game against Henning.

Senior Shaily Hakamaki said as they started to leave, their phones started to go off with the news the state tournament had been called off and they wouldn’t get a chance to play that afternoon because of the budding crisis.


“Coach (Jeff) Gronner called us to his hotel room and we all went in there and sat and talked,” Shaily Hakamaki said. “There wasn’t much talking, to be honest, there were a lot of tears being shed.”

The Cardinals had finally gotten past Mountain-Iron Buhl in the Section 7A title game after two years of heartbreak. In 2018, Taya Hakamaki suffered a season-ending knee injury before the playoffs started. Last season, Shaily Hakamaki severely sprained her ankle in the opening minutes of the Section 7A championship game and watched as the Cardinals fell to the Rangers.

Senior Taya Hakamaki was happy they got past MIB but was left feeling empty despite beating Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the Class A semifinal.

“It feels unfair and like we worked really hard and it felt like someone robbed us of something,” Taya Hakamaki said. “We didn’t really get closure — yeah, we won our last game but we didn’t really get closure. We never got our last locker room talk. Just knowing that was our last game and we didn’t know it was going to be our last game was pretty tough.”

The Eskomos had played themselves into a strong position, but also ended the season without closure.

“We had gotten ourselves in the position we wanted to be in as far as in the section title game and then to have it just pulled out from under you — it was the same with the (CW) girls’ team,” Anderson said. “They were down there at state and then you’re just done. That’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow.”

The Cardinals were welcomed home with firetrucks and a parade to celebrate their accomplishments, but the lack of closure still burned for Jeff Gronner after several days back at home.

“A lot’s changed with everything getting shut down, but it still doesn't make what happened any easier,” he said. “I know in the bigger picture it’s probably what needed to be done, but it still — it sucks. That’s the only way you can say it.”


Esko senior James LeGarde was in class working on a project when he learned the section final had been canceled. He said the news was “devastating” but he was proud of the way the Esko community has rallied around the school’s athletic program in a difficult year. In October, Jackson Pfister, 15, died in the waning moments of the Esko football team’s win over Aitkin. Then in December, senior Trevor Spindler, one of the team’s leading scorers a year ago, was lost for the season after a serious car crash.

“It’s been a whirlwind with all this crap,” LeGarde said. “My team has been so strong through all of this. We’ve just worked through it together and it’s just a close knit community here in Esko with the way we handle things. I’m really fortunate to be with these people that have helped me through all these things.”

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Cromwell-Wright's Taya Hakamaki (1) smiles as the clock runs out in the second half of the Cardinals' win over Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the Class A quarterfinal Thursday, March 12, at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis. Hakamaki didn't know it at the time, but it was her last game for the Cardinals. (Pine Journal file photo)

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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