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Prep boys basketball: Esko plans to stick with winning formula

Known for their fast-paced style of play, the 2022 Eskomos will not deviate from what has made them an area powerhouse.

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Cuinn Berger dribbles around Connor Lahti during a practice drill on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at Esko High School. Jake Przytarski / Cloquet Pine Journal

Wearing down opponents with a fast-paced, up-tempo style of play has been the recipe for success for the run-and-gun Esko Eskomos in recent years.

Don’t expect that high-octane pace to slow down anytime soon, as this year’s team will be among the most athletic groups Esko coach Derek Anderson has seen in his time with the program.

“This is probably one of the more athletic groups we’ve had top to bottom,” Anderson said. “We don’t have as many shooters as we traditionally have, but I think we can make up for that if we get after it on the defensive end of the court.”

The Eskomos are coming off of a disappointing 2021 season for their standards, after falling to Pequot Lakes in the Section 7AA semifinals and finishing with a 13-8 record overall. The team had previously won the Section 7AA title in 2020, but was unable to compete in the state tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With all signs pointing to a bounce-back season for the blue and gold, expectations are understandably high.

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“Our expectations and goals are to get back to state,” Anderson said. “We looked at last year as kind of a letdown with no offseason and no training or anything, and then having a limited number of varsity returners. It was tough to compete with teams that brought back a lot of starters.”
This year’s team, while young, features a bevy of key contributors set to make their return.

Cuinn Berger, Chad Hart and Nick Swanson are the returning starters, while Makoi Perich, Dalton Spindler, Cale Haugen and Carter Zezulka are all expected to make an impact with bigger roles this season. Connor Lahti is another name to keep an eye on for the Eskomos.

Many of the aforementioned players represented Esko in the Twin Ports Summer Jam at Cloquet Middle School back in July. Berger, a member of the Summer Jam team, also spent time with Starks Academy in Duluth as part of the 17U Showcase AAU Team, where he had the entire offseason to hone his skills and gear up for his junior season.

“(I worked on getting better with) my left hand, which I definitely did,” Berger said. “Dribbling, that’s a big part of it. I have to get a quicker handle, and better shooting. It’s just a lot of stuff for finding more skills.”

Expected to be one of the team’s go-to scorers, the improvements in Berger's game have already become noticeable in practices, Anderson said.

“It’s going to be a big step for him, because obviously he’s spent a ton of time in the gym. He’s worked quite a bit in the offseason developing his game and that’s carried over into the beginning of the season here,” Anderson said. “You can tell he’s worked on his shot quite a bit. He’s gotten a lot stronger than he was last year.”

As the team prepares for its season opener at home against Virginia on Friday, Dec. 3, Anderson has emphasized defense with hopes of cleaning up some of the errors that plagued the Eskomos last season.

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“Our focus so far has been defense, (and) getting locked in mentally everyday,” Anderson said. “We gotta make sure that we show up and compete and get after it, because last year I think we had too many lapses where we were giving up wide-open baskets. So far, it’s only been a few practices, but they’ve really bought into that mentality.”

Anderson hopes that having a full offseason to get squared away on the defensive end of the floor will loom large in their quest for a trip back to the state tournament.

“We’re looking ... to get set up and then kind of get back to those building blocks of what makes a successful team,” Anderson said. “We’re hoping to rely on our defense and our athleticism, and hopefully that can carry us back to state.”

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
Jake Przytarski is a reporter for the Cloquet Pine Journal covering a mix of news and sports.
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