Korby's Connections: Titans clash in packed Esko gym


January 19, 2024

It was surprising to not see University of Minnesota Gopher coaches P.J. Fleck and Ben Johnson pushing their way through the Esko gymnasium doors at the Jan. 12 boys basketball game.

After all, Esko's Koi Perich (football) and Cherry's Isaac Asuma (basketball) are two of the most heralded 2024 Gopher recruits in their respective sports and they were playing each other in a clash of northeastern Minnesota powerhouse teams.

Cherry prevailed over Esko, turning a close game at halftime into a runaway with a 100-74 victory. Cherry improved its record to 11-2. They are the No. 1 ranked Class A team in the state. Esko, ranked fourth in Class 2A, slipped to 6-3.

It was a fantastic Friday night high school game with a playoff atmosphere. The contest was dubbed "fill the gym" night at Esko, with students getting in for free so long as they wore Esko blue.

The crowd arrived early. The announcer asked the fans to squeeze together to allow some of the paying attendees in the lobby to find a place to sit. The JV teams had probably never played in front of such a large and charged-up crowd.

Many came to see the "Battle of the Titans" with Perich and Asuma both sporting No. 3, going against each other. Perich had recently been elected the All-American Bowl MVP at the national football game in San Antonio. Asuma was notably ranked one of the top 10 point guards nationally by 247 Sports.

Both teams started the game sluggishly and seemed to be feeling each other out like the opening rounds of a prizefight. Esko had a height advantage but Cherry made up for it with quick passes, finding open shooters. Both teams had some fantastic spurts and highly athletic plays. Cherry enjoyed a small halftime lead, 50-44.

"It is sure great watching such fine players compete at such a high level," said Brenda Fischer, whose husband, Aaron, is an Esko assistant coach.

Both teams are well coached by Jordan Christianson at Cherry and Derek Anderson at Esko. What can't be controlled sometimes is shooting. In the second half, Cherry got hot and Esko cooled. At the 14:52 mark, Cherry led 59-52. A few minutes later, at 11:26, it was suddenly 71-52.

Per WKLK Hall of Fame play-by-play radio announcer Dwight Cadwell, "Cherry was 12-for-19 from 3-point range in the second half. That's impressive shooting."

Standing by me during the game was Brian Poppenberg of Esko, who said there was only one word that described the Cherry long-range and free-throw display: Smooth.

Cherry, with a high school student population of 142, rotates only seven boys regularly. Three of those boys have the last name of Asuma.

Esko - with a high school student count of 375 - is considerably larger, but with the communities only 60 miles apart, Cherry's Christianson has added challenging teams to the team's schedule in preparation for postseason play. On Feb. 1, they'll be playing Duluth Denfeld.

With their fast break and unselfish mentality, all five of Cherry's starters were in double digits led by Noah Asuma with 21 (five 3-pointers), followed by Isaac Asuma and Carson Brown with 20, Isaiah Asuma 18 and Noah Sundquist 16. Sundquist is the team leader in scoring average this year with Issac Asuma leading the team in assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks per game.

Esko had two players in double digits, led by Perich with 21 and 6-foot-6 Braedyn Male with 16.

Isaac Asuma is the leading point scorer in Cherry history and is close - if he hasn't already - to surpassing 3,000 career points.

He is the only senior on Cherry's starting five and has been on varsity since the seventh grade.

Perich is approaching the Esko all-time individual scoring crown now held by 2014 state champion Kory Deadrick with 1,928. Perich has a career-high 50 points to his credit as well, against nearby rival Cloquet.

"I see now why Cherry is ranked No. 1," said Esko resident and former all-star Carlton Bulldog Jeff Hedlund. "That was an impressive showing against a good team."

Steve Korby's interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. He welcomes ideas for human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans c/o [email protected].


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