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In youth battle, Esko tips Cloquet


November 29, 2019

Amber Nichols

Esko's Kaitlyn Adkins drives to the basket while defender Caley Kruse keeps pace. After the lead changed more than once in the close game Friday, Esko won 49-43.

With her team up by three points and under 20 seconds to go, Esko's Aila Gabel had to make just one of two free throws to seal the win for her team during Friday night's game in Esko.

With a rowdy opposing crowd, no one could blame Gabel for being nervous. Or not. The sophomore cooly drained both shots, propelling the Eskomos past Cloquet by a score of 49-43 in each team's first regular season game of the season.

Gabel wasn't the only underclassman playing in last week's matchup. Both teams lack varsity experience, with only three seniors between the two teams.

Still, it was a fiercely competitive game for both teams, with Esko leading 27-26 at halftime, and the Lumberjacks leading in the second half 37-34 before the Eskomos went on a run.

Esko had three players score in double digits, with Jayden Karppinen, Aila Gabel and Kristy DeMuth all firing off 14 points each. Brenna Stark had seven points. Karppinen scored two 3-point goals, and Gabel scored one.

Cloquet was led by Maddie Young, with 17 points for the night. Six other players scored for the Lumberjacks, including Caley Kruse with seven points, Kate Owens with six, Alexa Snesrud and Justice Paro with four, Katie Turner with three and Grace

Meagher with 2 points.

The lack of experience is a challenge both teams will have to overcome this season.

"We're just an inexperienced team at the varsity level," Cloquet head coach Heather Young said, noting they have only three girls back with varsity experience.

"There's going to be a lot of room for improvement and hopefully we'll be more experienced and ready for the playoffs come March," said Esko head coach Scott Antonutti.

Both teams graduated a strong senior class last year.

With five seniors last year, the Eskomos went 21-6 and won the Polar League big school division conference championship before falling to Aitkin in the section semifinals.

Cloquet graduated seven seniors last year after finishing 16-12 and, like Esko, lost in the section semifinals. Kate Owens is the sole senior on this year's team and is already having an impact on the young team.

"She's really good with accountability with our girls, which is really nice," Young said. "The girls respect her ... She's also going to hold them in order. If I'm in the middle of talking and a girl starts a side conversation or something, she's always the first one to say 'Hey, pay attention.' I don't have to say it. That's a coach's dream."

Having this kind of a leader not only helps the team this year, but also sets them up for strong teams for years to come.

Don't let these young teams fool you. They might be young, but expect them to surprise a lot of people this year.

Amber Nichols

Esko's Kristy Demuth and Cloquet's Kate Owens, both seniors, look for position after Demuth shot the ball on a breakaway. Between the two teams, there are only three seniors playing this year.

Coach Young alluded to this when she talked about the girls' fierce competitiveness: "They definitely are competitors and they have that hunger in them and they want to do well," she said. "We also have good team chemistry with each other as well as some really good ball handlers."

Antonutti talked about why his team struggled. "I think it was just first-game jitters and having inexperienced kids."

With this, both coaches are hopeful that their teams will work out the bugs and become very competitive down the stretch come playoff time.

"Give us a month and let's see where we're at," said Young. "You know, I really feel like if we had just done those little things of free throws and taking care of the ball then it could have been a different situation for us and I'm all right with that."

"I think the girls are young, but I'm optimistic that we can contend [for the section championship]" Antonutti said.


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