Girls Basketball Preview
January 15, 2021
Oh what could have been! Last year Cromwell-Wright was on the precipice of what could have been a state title. The Cardinals were loaded with talent and had two of the top players in the area. They advanced to the state tournament and were an odds-on favorite for the championship game. Then? The Covid pandemic hit and the Cards season ended without a chance to play in their semifinal game and move on to the championship. Gone are eight seniors, including two players who scored 2,000 points in their career: Taya and Shaily Hakamaki. Both are at UMD and both were forces to be reckoned with on the court. Also gone is starter Emmalee Hoover along with a stellar 29-2 record.
But they bring back talent too.
"Junior guard Andrea Pocernich and Junior forward Natalee Hakamaki are both returning two-year starters," said Cards head coach Jeff Gronner. "Sophomore Sascha Korpela was our sixth man last year. Seniors Katherine Libbon and Brandi Collman have both bided their time behind the senior class and now will be important pieces for our team."
That group will look to continue to build on the success of recent years.
"Our team expectations are to play as many games as possible and win as many as possible," said Gronner. "I find it is impossible to look too far ahead in this Covid age. Odds are very high the schedule we have set now will not be our final schedule."
Obviously, Cardinal fans have a right to be bitter. Last year's team was a proven commodity and they deserved a shot at a state title game only to be robbed by a pandemic. Gronner only hopes that Covid doesn't cause more disruption than it already has.
"The biggest Covid impact has been obviously shortening the season and then not allowing for girls to work on their game in the gym on their own time," he said.
In the meantime, Cardinals fans can only hope they can retain some of the magical season they had at the end of March last year.
The Lumberjacks struggled with a 3-23 record last season and fell in the first round of the playoffs. But Cloquet lost just one player, Kate Owens, to graduation. They return a big group of players who saw a lot of playing time.
"We will miss Kate's leadership, and her ability to help run the floor for our team," said Cloquet coach Heather Young, adding that they return three seniors, six juniors, and one sophomore.
Among key returning starters are Gracie Meagher, Maddie Young, and Alexa Snesrud. Katie Turner, Cristina Genita, and Justice Paro rotated last season as a fifth starter when Owens was out injured, or when they changed the lineup against a specific opponent.
"Caley Kruse is also expected to contribute to the team along with Winnie Benjamin-Hall and Addison Thompson, who are all juniors," Young said. "We definitely have a more experienced group than last season. This group will be expected to be a competitive bunch who have the ability to do some damage in our section."
Young mentioned that the team will need to build off of what they learned last year and continue to be coachable and grow in the game, on both ends of the floor.
Like every team across the country, Covid has had an impact.
"We are just thankful to be able to enter the gym each day and get a great game schedule," Young said. "Our activities director did a really nice job putting together a tough schedule for us and keeping in the travel parameters. Our players know that we have a special opportunity and are ready to be back in the gym - whatever that looks like."
Year in and year out it seems as if the Esko girls basketball team reloads instead of rebuilding.
The Eskomos finished a solid 17-11 a year ago and lost in the section finals to an impressive Marshall Hilltopper squad 52-48. While the Eskomos did lose two seniors they continue this season with a deep and impressive crew.
"Kristy DeMuth and Aubrey Compo were our seniors last year with DeMuth being a three-year starter and she ended her career with over 1,000 points," said Esko coach Scott Antonutti. "We return 13 letter-winners from last year, so we will have a lot of experience coming back. Our JV only lost a couple games last year, so we should have a lot of experience and depth."
Juniors Sarah Wagemaker - who was All-Conference last year - and Jayden Karppinen both averaged about 10 points a game for Esko last year and will be key players. Also look for Aila Gabel, another junior, who did the majority of the ball handling last year, to be back at point guard. Senior Mallory Sunnarborg made the all-conference team as well and is a defensive stopper while Brenna Stark, another senior, led Esko in rebounding. All five spent significant time starting last year.
As if that isn't enough to strike fear in opponents, the Eskomo junior varsity was loaded with talent. Statistical leaders from that squad include Avery Kuklinski, Rachel Antonutti and Kaitlyn Adkins.
"I expect our girls to play scrappy. We don't have a lot of height, so we are going to have to make up for that with our grittiness and willingness to be aggressive," said Antonutti. "I expect that we will challenge for the conference title and believe we can challenge for the section title."
The Eskomos are dealing with Covid the best they can.
"Every season has unique challenging situations, this happens to be this year's challenge," Antonutti said. "We will follow the guidelines and procedures the best we can, make adjustments when necessary, and we get to play basketball. I told the girls right away, I don't want to hear complaints, debates, or even opinions on any of it, it is all out of our control and focusing on it is a waste of time and energy. We are going to focus on basketball and are grateful that we are getting some sort of a season. Our team is full of great student athletes, continuing on that long Esko tradition, I'm proud of my team and thankful that I've gotten to be a part of it for so long."
The Wrens lost six players off a 4-18 season a year ago and fell in the first round of the sectional playoffs in a play-in game to Silver Bay.
"Six seniors lost is a big hole for any team, especially one fighting the numbers game every season," said head coach Damien LaFave, before naming the six returning players from last year, including Hailey Tauzell, Abbie Resberg, Janae Sjodin, Katie Line, Frenchie Klimek and Hennessy Bilges.
The second-year coach is optimistic about the upcoming season.
Tauzell was lost in the middle of the season to an ankle fracture last year and is the team leader in with an average of 20 points per game and 10 boards per game.
"Abbie Resberg was also lost to an ankle injury as well as a serious illness, she is physical inside on offense and defense," said LaFave. "Janae Sjodin stepped up big time when her two teammates were out, leading the team in scoring (10-15 ppg) and 10 boards/game and Frenchie Klimek also contributed, giving us another point guard, who, with her quickness, added a much needed dimension to the team."
The Wrens got an added boost when senior Brooke Kent decided to step onto the court and play basketball this season, giving the coach an added athletic player.
"Brooke is athletic and tall and she is a welcome sight from a coach's perspective," said LaFave. "She is a fast learner and has adapted well to our expectations."
Katie Line, a sophomore, has worked hard to become bigger, faster and stronger.Ninth-grader Liberty Bilges has shown flashes of maturity and ability. According to Lafave, Bilges has come in with a great work ethic "and ready to contribute any way she can."
"Our expectations are to build on the successes of last season and learn a lot from our failures," LaFave said. "We will use our speed and be aggressive on defense, play smart and with patience on offense.
"Again, it's the numbers game that is our biggest foe,"Lafave said. "This is a resilient bunch, and we are doing everything in accordance to the state guidelines for this season."
Like many teams across the state, the Barnum Bombers are facing Covid-related issues. "We graduated three seniors from last year including our leading scorer Makenzee Schleret (15 ppg), our best leader, Kendal Miletich, and our do-everything player, Gracie Nelson," said head coach AJ Palmer. "We're returning two starters from last year; senior Madisen Warnygora and sophomore Rayna Klejeski. Also, because of Covid we had a few girls from last year decide to sit out this year, so their presence will be missed."
Palmer points to a couple of newcomers who could help the Bombers improve throughout the season.
"Junior Anessa Davis will be someone to watch. She brings a lot of energy and fire," said Palmer. "Sophomore Jocinda Wright is another one. If she gets confidence in herself she could emerge as a top scorer for us."
Palmer has had to adjust his thinking because of players lost from a team that went 12-16 a year ago.
"Before the year we expected to build off of some success we had near the end of last season but with the amount of girls sitting out this year we turned into a young and inexperienced team," Palmer said. "We'll take some bumps and bruises to start but hopefully as the year goes along we'll continue to get better. The girls that decided to sit out this year is a setback, but in sports it's all about next person up so hopefully some younger girls can come in and make an impact early and often."
The South Ridge girls basketball team gave Panthers fans a glimpse of what could be last season. The Panthers went 14-14 and made it to the third round of the section basketball tournament. This year the Panthers could kick the door in if they can remain healthy.
"We had only one senior last year," said coach Brad Olesiak. "We have our starting five returning and eight of our top nine players returning again this year."
A big key to the Panthers' success will be the play of Adella Olesiak. Last year, as a ninth-grader, she was the Panthers leading scorer and was named to the Polar League All-Conference team. Olesiak is a gifted playmaker and scorer and can make players around her better, and that will be fun because the Panthers have some talented other players as well.
Those talented players include senior guard Alana Young, senior forward Raina Schneider (leading rebounder from last year), Svea Snickers, the second-leading scorer as an eighth-grade guard last season and junior forward Paris Fierklepp, third- leading scorer. Look for more playing time for Rylee Young, Phylesha Preston and Lauren Olson, who will all have big roles on the Panthers team.
"With only 10 girls out from grades 9-12, we need to stay healthy and hope that we can compete against the top teams in the area," said Olesiak.
If the Carlton Bulldogs are going to compete in the sections this year, they'll have to overcome the loss of four starters as well as a number of role players off a team that finished 13-12 a year ago.
"The starters we lost included 1000-point scorer Alaina Bennet, Brynne and Abby Mickle and Kaylee Asleson," said head coach Brian Hey. "We have only two players that played any consistent varsity minutes last season, seniors Elizabeth Hey and Sam Mattarelli. Elizabeth is a two-year starter and Sam started some games or was the first off the bench last season."
The Bulldogs will look for Hey and Mattarelli to be at the core of what they do this season.
"They are great senior leaders and can both put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, or shoot from outside," coach Hey said. "I am going to be asking a lot of them with both their roles on the court, and helping our extremely young team as they learn the system."
"Araceli Ramos-Smith is our only other senior this season. She hasn't played many varsity minutes, but I think she is going to make a big impact with our team this season," Hey said. "Junior Morgan Laveau is another that will be a big part of what we do. She is a great athlete and a hard worker that I will be looking for her to not only score, but continue to be a great defender and rebounder. Also, sophomore Madison Asleson is going to be asked to play a big role."
Hey is a strong believer in focusing on defense and this team will lean on that aspect of the game to stay in every game this season.
"I expect we will be competitive in every game," said Hey. "We are going to focus a lot on defense, and I am a firm believer that if you play defense well you can be there at the end of every game you play."
Moose Lake/Willow River
The Moose Lake/Willow River Rebels finished at 16-10 last season and made it to the second round of the sectional playoffs. The Rebels will look to improve on that record and playoff run this year because, unlike most teams, they did not graduate any players.
"We did not lose anyone from last year's team, which is rare," said Rebels coach Zak Mathson. "We also have all of our players returning."
Natalie Mikrot is a key returner.
"Natalie has been our point guard since seventh grade and does a great job running the team. She was our leading scorer last year and can score anywhere on the court. She is savvy and very aggressive," coach Mathson said. "Also back is Monica Mikrot who was our best percentage 3-point shooter, and a great defender. Ella Rhoades is also back and she has an amazing motor both offensively and defensively, and our best rebounder."
Mathson says that Rebels fans should also watch for Skyla Thompson, a pesky defender who has improved her court vision and who also goes 100 percent the entire time she is on the floor.
"I expect this team of mostly seniors and juniors to make a good run," Mathson said.