Playoff preview: Eskomos, Rebels on collision course for Section 7AA
Nine area teams will compete in section tournaments that started with play-in games Monday, March 2.
Opening matchup: Plays at Hibbing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Notes: Cloquet struggled out of the gate this season, losing nine of its first 12 games. Adam Schneider has led the team in scoring most of the season with over 21 points per game and senior Markus Pokornowski — one of just two seniors on the roster — has been a strong second option. The Lumberjacks closed the season with three straight wins over North Branch, Crosby-Ironton and Proctor, with junior Nathan Blatchford scoring a career-high 17 points against the Rangers. Cloquet will need to play its best game of the season against Hibbing — a team that beat the Lumberjacks 84-56 on Feb. 6.
Opening matchup: Will play Aitkin or Pequot Lakes at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7 at Romano Gym
Notes: Esko is the defending Section 7AA champ and all signs point toward a repeat trip to the state tournament. Despite losing Trevor Spindler for the season following a December car crash, the Eskomos have continued to rack up wins, going 11-3 since a 57-50 loss to Superior Jan. 13. Payton Wefel has averaged more than 22 points a game, with James LeGarde and Eli Blue emerging as legitimate scoring threats. The Eskomos are likely to face Moose Lake-Willow River in the section championship game, a team they rallied to beat 75-73 from 13 down with less than seven minutes on Jan. 3.
Moose Lake-Willow River Rebels
Opening matchup: Hosts Pillager at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 5
Notes: Moose Lake-Willow River has emerged as the most serious threat to Esko’s dominance over Section 7AA with three players — Mason Olson, Brady Watrin and Phillip Sheetz — averaging at least 10 points a game. Watrin leads the area in field goal percentage, shooting nearly 70% in the paint and Sheetz averages nearly 45 percent from 3-point range. The Rebels have lost just twice since Jan. 1 — a 75-73 loss to Esko Jan. 3 and a 109-104 double overtime loss to North Woods Feb. 6 — and have looked like a team ready to take the next step all season.
Two Harbors Agates
Opening matchup: Plays at Virginia at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Notes: Two Harbors started 1-12, but rallied to win four of five games in January, including back-to-back wins over North Shore rivals Silver Bay and Cook County. After a six game losing streak in February, the Agates won their final two contests over Wrenshall and Barnum. Freshman Trent Gomez has emerged as the team’s point guard of the future, with Jeremiah Johnson and Clark Nelson providing a strong presence in the paint. The Agates’ season will likely end against Virginia, but a strong core is developing for the coming seasons.
Opening matchup: Plays at Hinckley-Finlayson at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 5
Notes: Barnum opened up the season with three straight losses and was up and down all season, but collected wins over Carlton, Braham and South Ridge. Late season losses to East Central and Two Harbors forced the Bombers into a play-in game against Ogilvie Monday, March 2. Barnum’s defense allowed just 16 first-half points against the Lions, and sophomore Joe Peterson scored 35 to lead the team into the first round against Hinckley-Finlayson — a team the Bombers topped 65-58 in their only meeting this season.
Opening matchup: Hosts Swanvillle at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 5
Notes: Cromwell-Wright made the state tournament for the first time since 1996 last season and are hoping for an encore trip this year. The Cardinals are led by senior Micah Pocernich’s 24.8 points per game, but have gotten timely scoring from Gage Zoeller and Garrett Zoeller throughout the season. C-W should move easily past first round opponent Swanville Thursday, March 5 and will face Hinckley-Finlayson or Barnum in the Section 5A quarterfinal March 7.
Opening matchup: Plays at South Ridge at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Notes: Carlton finished the season with losses to North Woods and Isle, but before that had won four of five games, including a 94-80 win over Fond du lac Ojibwe. At 6 feet, 5 inches, senior Ben Soderstrom presents a matchup problem for nearly any team Carlton faces and has played well after missing all of his junior season with a broken leg. However, the Bulldogs face South Ridge in the first round, one of the few teams in the section with size to match Soderstrom. The Panthers beat Carlton 66-52 Jan. 10.
Fond du Lac Ojibwe Ogichidaag
Opening matchup: Hosts Chisholm at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Notes: Fond du Lac Ojibwe started the season slowly, winning just five of their first 14 games. The Ogichidaag picked up the pace, going 9-2 since Jan. 31 and two players — sophomore Conner Barney and freshman Jordan Brown — scored their 1,000th career points during the stretch. FDLO can score with most teams, but struggles defensively. The team has allowed an average of 87 points in its 11 losses this season. FDLO might not win the section, but with young offensive talent like Barney and Brown, it could contend in the coming seasons.
Silver Bay Mariners
Opening matchup: Plays at Cherry at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Notes: Most teams know the recipe for beating Silver Bay. Prevent Mason Ollman from driving into the paint and run Riley Tiboni off the 3-point line. Accomplishing that is another matter, however. When Ollman is on his game, defenses collapse to stop his dribble penetration, leaving Tiboni wide open from long range. The Mariners have struggled defensively and closing out games at times this season, but if Derek Thompson or Kaleb Krech can contribute offensively, Silver Bay could surprise some teams in the Section 7A tournament.