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For Cards, it's win and you're out

Cancelled tournament mars magical 29-2 season


March 20, 2020

Dan Saletel

Cromwell-Wright fans cheer on their team Thursday at the University of Minnesota as the Cardinals won the quarterfinal game in the Minnesota Class A Girls State Basketball Tournament. It would be the last game for the team as the tournament was canceled on Friday.

The Cromwell-Wright girls basketball team started off fast at last week's Minnesota girls state basketball tournament, but then they hit a wall - one not of their own making.

After winning a quarterfinal game March 12, much of the sports world across the country went dark, including high school sports in Minnesota.

"The state tournament weekend right now in my mind stays in the category of 'very deflating,'" head coach Jeff Gronner said. "We were hoping for a second chance at Minneota and a state title, but that is all for not, now."

Ranked No. 2 in Class A, the Cardinals season ended March 13 when the Minnesota State High School League canceled the remainder of the 2020 state tournament and also canceled the boys state and section tournaments. It is an effort to maintain social distancing in the state as the COVID-19 virus spreads.

The Cardinals fell to Minneota in a close game to open the season. It was one of only two losses for the team. "It left a very bitter taste in everyone's mouth," Gronner said. The team was slated to face Henning Friday with a win putting them in the championship against one of the other semifinal teams, Minneota or Waterville-Elysian-Morristown.

Friday's cancellation followed changes announced Thursday at the state tournament: due to the coronavirus, all consolation and third-place games were canceled and fan numbers were going to be limited starting Friday.

"While the changes in our tournaments are unfortunate, we recognize that a collective community response is critical to supporting the health of our communities," MSHSL's Erich Martens stated in a press release Thursday, adding that they would follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and to work with member schools "to finish this winter season in the best way possible."

Following an exciting Class A quarterfinal on Thursday where the Cardinals defeated Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 67-58, Cromwell-Wright was poised to face Henning in one state semifinal Friday afternoon.

Gronner said he had a sense of uneasiness that something would change by game time.

At 10:57 a.m. Friday, the MSHSL announced the remainder of the girls basketball tournament, adapted floor hockey and the boys basketball tournaments were canceled.

Gronner called in his players, who had finished a shoot-around and were getting ready for that day's game.

"We played fantastic against BBE, but after the game I still had a deep-down feeling that that might be the only one we get." Gronner said.

Cromwell-Wright was led by Taya Hakamaki who scored 35 points Thursday.

BBE jumped out to an early 7-2 lead but following seven lead changes over the next 10 minutes, the Cardinals took the lead for good with 6:10 remaining in the first half. That's when Natalee Hakamaki scored down in the paint to put the Cardinals in front 26-25. Andrea Pocernich came up huge early in the half for the Cardinals as well, hitting two big three-pointers, which gave the team some momentum when they were struggling to get it going from the outside.

Cromwell-Wright closed out the first half on a 17-8 run to lead at the break by a score of 41-33. The second half saw the Cardinals continue where they left off, as cousins Taya and Shaily Hakamaki, along with Pocernich, continued a torrential scoring pace to build a 15-point lead midway through the second half.

Taya finished with 35 points, 13 that came off her five steals. She was 10-for-11 from the free-throw line. She also had five assists. Shaily led with nine rebounds to go along with her 15 points and Pocernich shot 63 percent from the field.

With the cancellation of the rest of the tournament, the Cardinals finished the season with a 29-2 record and will lose a strong group of eight seniors who have played basketball together for many years. It's a group that never thought ending the season with a win wouldn't include a state championship.

"I have lots of emotions, and none of them happy ones right now," Gronner said. "It was a fantastic season. Just the ending leaves a bitter taste in everyone's mouth because we truly believed we were going to win the whole thing. Now we will never know."

Gronner ended on a somewhat hopeful note, though.

"Maybe as time passes we will look back on the state tourney more fondly, but right now that is not the case," he said.

Dan Saletel

Andrea Pocernich's shooting helped Cromwell-Wright take a lead and not lose it Thursday in a state quarterfinal win against Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa.

"I really felt bad for them," Hermantown head coach Beth Clark said. "We were lucky to come down and play two games. Even though we were done at the state tournament, it would have been nice to see Cromwell-Wright and Duluth Marshall play it out until the end."

Hermantown was playing in the Class AAA tournament and Marshall was playing in Class AA. Like the Cardinals, the Hilltoppers were supposed to play in the state semifinals Friday.

The Cardinals team was welcomed home at the school gym Saturday. The fan support helped, Gronner and team members said.

And there was even room for some levity, as Gronner indicated in an interview with Duluth's WDIO-TV concerning how teams might be recognized for reaching the curtailed state tournament.

"I hope that the state high school league will give us something," he said. "Even if they don't, we're going to buy one and put it in our case. I'm not sure actually what it will say, but it's going to say something."


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