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Tiny Cromwell gets some national love

Midway through the second quarter of the NCAA Division II women's basketball championship game, the announcers on the CBS Sports Network national broadcast mentioned Cromwell. That's because they were referring to Taya Hakamaki, a junior guard for the University of Minnesota Duluth team and high school player at Cromwell-Wright. The announcement likely caused cheers at many establishments in Carlton County that aired the title game Saturday afternoon.

"I didn't realize they mentioned Cromwell," Hakamaki said on Monday after her team returned from Dallas. "I don't think people who are not from around here realize how small Cromwell is ... that is so cool to know that they took the time to do that."

UMD lost to the top-ranked team in the nation, Ashland University from Ohio. Ashland finished the season undefeated and opened up a tight game in the second quarter and eventually held on for a 78-67 win. The Bulldogs trailed by 22 points at one point in the first half, but Hakamaki turned up the intensity and the team seemed to follow by cutting into the lead and teasing fans into the possibility of a come-from-behind upset.

UMD scored 22 points off 21 Ashland turnovers - just one turnover shy of a season-high. The Bulldogs also posted a season-high 14 steals - the second-most allowed against the Eagles all season. Hakamaki had a career-best six steals.

"I may be a little biased, but Taya really had a lot of bounce and created a lot of problems for Ashland, especially in the second half," said her former high school coach Jeff Gronner. "We always knew how good Taya was on offense, but what has impressed me in college is her defensive play. She seems to create steals, gets hands on the ball and her rebounding has been impressive too."

Driving a comeback

UMD's All-American and NCAA Division II Player of the Year Brooke Olson led the game in scoring with 26 points despite having to sit for much of the game from collecting fouls.

"It definitely would have been fun to see how close the game would have been if Brooke hadn't been in foul trouble," Hakamaki. "We talked at halftime about how we had to turn up the defensive pressure and to create as many turnovers as possible. My job was to go out and try and disrupt, get steals and try to create pressure on Ashland."

Hakamaki also had seven points and three rebounds in the championship game.

"You could argue that Taya could have the second-most important role on the team," Gronner said. "She can score, she creates turnovers and she has become a very good rebounder. It has been so fun to watch her grow and become such an important player on a team that finished second in the nation."

Time in Dallas

Saturday afternoon's championship game was played at American Airlines Arena, home of the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA and Stars of the NHL. The NCAA Division I women's Final Four and the Division II and III title games were all played at the same location as part of the 50th anniversary of the Title IX decision that opened the door for an explosion of girls' and women's sports across the country in the 1970s.

Taya's parents, Tim and Teresa Hakamaki, were part of a group of eight people who drove down for the game. Tim Hakamaki said Dallas was a great host and the atmosphere was great, as players and fans for all divisions interacted.

He said he was shocked by the number of Bulldogs fans who came to Dallas, estimating at least 50 or so. "Dallas did a wonderful job," he said. "Easy access, they catered to everyone."

He said he spent a good amount of time communicating with people back home in the Cromwell area, sending links on how to watch the game on TV. "There were plenty of parties," he said. "Kind of like the Super Bowl."

Relative success

The Hakamaki girls are part of a basketball family dynasty in the Cromwell area. Taya's cousin Shaila played for UMD for two seasons before becoming the team manager this year. Taya and sister Teana practiced plenty on the family's indoor basketball court with cousins Shaila, Natalee, Andrea and Amanda. All have been part of the successful Cromwell-Wright girls basketball program in the past decade.

Tim Hakamaki said all of the girls "had a lot of dedication to the game." They had fun in the 40x60 garage that holds the court. "We provided the opportunity," Tim said of building the heated garage in 2010. "They took advantage of that opportunity."

So does Taya now have basketball bragging rights, having reached the pinnacle of Division II basketball? Tim laughed, wisely being careful to not play favorites. "Taya was lucky to be on a team with a lot of talent," he said. "Yeah, there aren't too many people who can say they went to the Division II title game."

Second chances

For Taya, the national championship run was special, especially since she was part of the Cardinals team in 2020 that was denied further play in the state high school tournament due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This college run was sweet, she said.

"It was an amazing experience," Hakamaki said. "The whole red carpet treatment, the backpacks and cowboy hats they gave us, all just made for a very fun time."

The Bulldogs will lose Olson and Maesyn Thiesen to graduation, but Hakamaki hopes the run to the title game will give the returning players motivation for next season.

"It just shows what we are capable of," Hakamaki said. "I think getting there will serve as a lot of motivation for the returning players and the freshmen coming in. We know what it takes now and we need to work even harder to try and get back there again."

Most people would think that Hakamaki would be basking in the title game run, but when reached on Monday night by phone she was far from celebrating.

"I am doing homework," she said. "We've spent a lot of time on the road over the last few weeks so right now I am trying to get caught up."

UMD finished the historic season at 32-4, a record for total wins and NCAA tournament wins at five. "I wish that we would have come out with a 'W,' obviously, but the amount of pride I have in these people is going to make this a really fun season to remember," head coach Mandy Pearson said. "People are going to be talking about what these guys did for a long time."