Boys Basketball Preview
January 15, 2021
If Cromwell-Wright is going to contend for a section championship this year, they will have to overcome the loss of five seniors who graduated from last year's state-ranked 20-5 team. After going 10-0 in the conference, the Cards were shocked in the subsection quarterfinals by Hinckley-Finlayson, but that does not diminish just how truly good that team was. Led by Polar League MVP Micah Pocernich, the Cardinals will need to find a way to replace his 25.3 points per game, along with the 17.8 points per game by Gage Zoeller, who was also first team All-Conference.
The Cardinals also lost second team all-conference player Taye Anderson as well as Garrett Zoeller and Benjamin Hansen. Despite that, anyone who knows head coach Bill Pocernich knows he is uncanny at developing talent and replacing good players with more good players.
"We return eight players off of last year's varsity, all of whom I expect to be in the rotation this year," Pocernich said. "Ethan Shelton (second team all-conference, 9.2 ppg, 3.3 apg) is a junior and another junior, Zevvus Smith, started for us last season."
Other returners are senior Aiden Lehti, juniors Michael Zoeller and Nathan Eliason, sophomores Noah Foster, Liam Schoenberg and Tate Blomquist. The Cards also added Emmett Clark, a senior, who is new to the team this year.
Pocernich sees this team as one that will mature as the season wears on.
"With a combination of a lot of younger players and inexperience, we expect this team to grow together throughout the year," said Pocernich. "We expect to be competitive within our conference and section."
Moose Lake/Willow River
Moose Lake-Willow River lost two players from a team that went 23-5 and lost in the second round of playoffs to Pierz last season.
"We graduated two seniors from last year's team, Michael Olson and Ben Dewey," said Rebels coach Wes Cummins. "Both of these players were the consummate teammates. We're going to miss their leadership a lot this year."
With that said, the Rebels are excited about the possibilities this season holds. They return eight players who either started or played significant minutes last year. Mason Olson, a senior, averaged 22 points per game last year and is a two-time first team all-conference player, a 1,000-plus point scorer and a three-year starter. Also back is senior Brady Watrin, who averaged 20 points per game last year, is a two-time first-team all-conference player and another 1,000-plus point scorer and a four-year starter.
"Both of these guys have logged a lot of minutes for us over the last three years," said Cummins. "As seniors, I'm expecting big things from them. Mason is one of the purest scorers I've ever seen. Few players can singlehandedly change a game like he can. Brady is the Swiss Army knife of our team. He works hard on both ends of the floor and can always be counted on to give 100 percent effort.
Also back is three-year starter Carter Johnson.
"Carter's stats might not jump off the page to the casual observer, but he's the guy that every coach wants on his team," said Cummins. "He is unselfish, a hard-worker, and athletic. I expect Carter to explode onto the scene a bit this year."
Expect to see more from juniors Logan Orvedahl, Landin Kurhajetz, Sam Dewey, Phillip Sheetz, Duane Broughton.
"It's hard calling these guys newcomers because most of them have logged significant varsity minutes for the last two years," Cummins said. "Logan Orvedahl is extremely athletic, strong, and the most competitive kid I've met. Has played varsity since eighth grade. Phillip Sheetz is the best shooter on the team and averaged 10 points per game last year. He has also played varsity since eighth grade. Sam Dewey spent the off-season adding muscle and athleticism. He is a gym rat who has a high basketball IQ. Landin Kurhajetz is an outstanding rebounder, and a big guy who can run the court and cause match-up problems. Duane Broughton was one of our better players at the beginning of last year before an injury forced him to miss almost the whole season."
Cummins says his team is expecting to fight for a section championship. "That's been our goal since day one," he said.
After going 9-18 last year and losing to Hibbing in the quarterfinals of the section playoffs, Cloquet is looking for a turn-around season this year.
"We only lost one player from last year and that was Marcus Pokornowski; however, he was injured so we played without him for most of the season," said coach Steve Battaglia. "Marcus was a major difference maker who, unfortunately, battled injuries."
The good news is the Lumberjacks return seven players who saw extensive playing time, including all five starters that pushed a really good Hibbing to the final minute in the playoffs.
"We return Adam Schneider who averaged 21 points per game," said Battaglia. Schneider is only the second player he's coached who has passed 1,000 points as a junior. "Dylan Heehn returns and he is a physical athlete and just a good all-around player who averaged 10 points. Alec Turnbull is back and he averaged 10 points per game and shoots the three-pointer well. Tyler Issendorf returns as a player who does all the things that don't show up in the box scores and is a key piece to our season as is Jack Sorenson who has high basketball IQ and plays a good all around game."
Battaglia pointed out a number of other players he likes on the team:
• Nate Blatchford, an athletic kid who can play in the paint;
• Caleb Hansen, a good guard who will surprise people this year;
• Jordan Diver, a pure shooter;
• Marco Mayorga, a ball player, who is crafty and good.
Also joining that crew are Reese Sheldon, who coaches call a pure athlete and raw but a player who will develop into something special over the next two years and
Damian Diver, who is full of potential, but his season will depend on recovering from a football injury.
"I like this group. These guys love basketball, they are physical and I don't see why we can't compete with everybody," Battaglia said. "Senior-dominated teams are special and that's where we are this year."
Longtime Bombers head coach Rich Newman returns for another season on the bench, but perhaps the oddest season in his career. With the pandemic causing scheduling conflicts, social distancing protocols and other issues, the coach is dealing with things he probably never in a million years thought he would have to face as a high school coach.
"The masks are a hard thing to get used to," said Newman. "We have a few kids with asthma problems and they are really struggling. We talked that now, more than ever, decisions you make affect the team. So we are working really hard on being safe and making wise decisions and sacrificing for the team."
A year ago the Bombers went 11-17 on the season. Among the key losses were Blaze Hurst, Braiden Davis and Cooper Nelson.
"Among our key returners are Jacob Hultgren, who is our primary ball handler and playmaker," said Newman. "Joe Peterson is back and he was our leading scorer from last year. Also back are Reed Kornovich, who played a lot of minutes last year and will be our go-to defender; Garret Coughlin, our big guy in the middle who we need to play at a high level, and Willie Richardson, Max Moors, Aiden Litfin and Sean Nybloom."
With that kind of depth returning you would think that the coach and players have big expectations, and they do.
"We have high hopes for our team. We have a lot of holes to fill and we really need to improve on the defensive side of the ball," Newman said.
The last time an Esko boys basketball team was on the court for a game was in the sectional semifinals, which they won. They had just improved their record to 21-7 and were getting ready to play for a state tournament berth. That's when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the Eskomos were thwarted, with no chance to go to the state tournament. If the Eskomos wish to get back to the title game this season they will need to overcome the losses of six seniors.
"Our key losses were Payton Wefel, James LeGarde, and Trevor Spindler - all of whom averaged close to 20 points a night. Preston Lowe started a lot of games as well," said Esko head coach Derek Anderson.
Despite the large loss of players, the Eskomos still return two starters and six players with varsity experience.
"Riley Fischer and Eli Blue were starters for us all year," Anderson said. "Jonah Randa, Cade Berger, and Chad Hart all started at some point and contributed throughout the season and they are all back."
Ask any high school coach what their dream team would be and most likely they'd say: "I would like a team that is tall with good speed, athletic, good basketball IQ and they can shoot."
That dream may be coming true for South Ridge Panther second-year coach Phil Pliska. The Panthers have a pair of twin towers that are over 6 1/2 feet tall, and four more players over 6 feet tall, two of them with speed.
That should almost guarantee an improvement over their 13-13 record from a year ago.
"I am really lucky," said Pliska. "We've got some good kids who love the game."
Despite losing six seniors, the Panthers look good. Back for another year are Austin Josephson, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who averaged a double-double last season and 6-foot-4 Jaxon Bennett, a junior who was the first player off the bench last year. Junior Zach Morse is back to lead the offense from his point guard position. He is joined by a pair of lightning quick seniors in Weston Stroshein and Noah Sertich, who are both gifted. Also back is Aaron Bennett, Jaxon's identical twin, who is also 6-foot-4; 6-foot-2 sophomore Wyatt Olson; and 6-foot-7 sophomore Slayton Stroshein, the brother of Weston.
"It's a coach's dream to have size and athleticism," said Pliska. "Our biggest question is who is going to step up to lead when adversity happens in a game. I just think with our speed and size that we are going to be a handful no matter who we play."
After a rough 4-21 season a year ago, the Wrenshall Wrens hope to bounce back this season. The Wrens lost five players to graduation last season
"We have two seniors this year in Mason Perry and Zeke Rousseau," said Wrens head coach Jon Bartczak. "Our two seniors are the most important parts of our team; their experience and leadership is extremely important and vital to our
Bartczak is in the dark about what to expect from his team, mostly related to lack of playing time due to Covid.
"It is hard to know what kind of expectations we should have because there was no summer league to give us an idea what to even expect," said Bartczak. "We have a large freshman class that should give us some good minutes."
Even though the Wrens don't know what to expect from a win-loss standpoint they do expect to have their share of good times during the season.
"It should be fun," said coach Bartczak. "We don't have huge numbers but the athletes that came out are dedicated."
Last year the Carlton Bulldogs finished with a 13-14 record and graduated nine seniors. With only one returning starter coming back, the Bulldogs are fortunate that they have another deep senior class.
"Our only starter coming back is Spencer Rousseau, but we have seven total seniors who are back," said coach Shawn Filipiak. "Spencer was one of our main guards all year for us last season."
Filipiak is realistic in his expectations for his squad and appears to have the big picture in mind.
"I expect ups and downs throughout this different and difficult season, but I plan to have all the boys on the same page come playoff time so we can make some noise if we can get into the playoffs," said Filipiak. "I expect us to go out and compete in every game. Even though we might be outmatched in a number of games I still expect the boys to put up a good fight."
With four new starters and a plethora of seniors on the team, the biggest issue facing the Bulldogs coaching staff has been the lack of gym time due to the pandemic.
"We are going to be really rusty the first few weeks and games," Filipiak said.