When the Greenway boys basketball team finished last season 16-12, it marked a rarity for the program, which wasn't accustomed to winning more games than it lost.
The last time it happened, in 2001-02, Dylan DeChampeau, now a sophomore, had just been born.
Raiders coach James Earley credits his predecessors, Gordy Skaar and Pat Kane, saying they set the table for this turnaround, which shows no signs of abating.
"They've been working with these guys since they were little kids," Earley said. "They started young and they got kids to play basketball."
And play it well.
Greenway followed its 16-win breakthrough - more than the previous five years combined - by improving to 23-3 this time around. The Raiders roll into tonight's Section 7AA playoff opener vs. Eveleth-Gilbert on a nine-game winning streak.
A young starting five, highlighted by DeChampeau, suggests Greenway's success is sustainable. The wiry 6-foot-5 DeChampeau can do it all. Freakishly athletic, he is averaging 22.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. As he's matured since becoming a full-time varsity starter in eighth grade, his skill set has expanded.
Skaar, who continues to help the Raiders informally, calls the News Tribune after every game to submit their box score. During one of those conversations, on Jan. 26, he said DeChampeau was a scorer last year.
"This year he's a basketball player," said Skaar, who added that DeChampeau "could play (NCAA) Division II basketball right now."
Ambitious offseasons have aided the transformation. DeChampeau travels to St. Cloud twice a week in the summer to practice with his AAU team, the Minnesota Matrix, who bounce around the Midwest competing in tournaments from April through July. His workout regimen includes at least 100 3-point attempts each day, and the proof is in the production.
Suddenly, this high-flying youngster also can light up opponents from the outside.
"You wouldn't want to leave him open," Earley said. "If you rotate and he's the guy standing at the 3-point line, you're not going to be happy."
DeChampeau scored his 1,000th career point in a season-opening victory at Duluth Marshall. The Raiders lost the next time out, at Virginia, before reeling off 13 straight wins. They returned to Earth in back-to-back losses to North Woods and Hibbing, but those setbacks were competitive - the margin was 15 points vs. the Grizzlies, ranked second in Class A, and four vs. the Bluejackets.
Even the defeats are more palatable.
"Hibbing just killed us last year," Earley said. By 35 points, in fact.
Earley said part of the transition from doormat to contender involved changing the team's mindset. Success breeds confidence, but sometimes you have to fall a few times and pick yourself up, the coach said.
After the successive losses, Greenway turned in one of its best performances of the winter, holding off Proctor 59-56.
Nonetheless, the Rails are seeded second and the Raiders third in their subsection.
"Beating Proctor built a lot of confidence, but we still have to be humble and not get too big-headed because we know they're going to be coming after us in the playoffs," DeChampeau said of a potential quarterfinal showdown between the schools.
Joining DeChampeau in the starting lineup is fellow sophomore Gordon Skaar (Gordy's son), junior Jace Hansen-Cochran and seniors Demetrius Aitken and Anto Vidovic. Hansen-Cochran boasts per-game averages of 17.9 points and 8.8 rebounds.
That blend of experience bodes well for the future.
"We like to think we've got a good thing going here," Earley said.
• While no team wants to compete without its star player, Esko responded brilliantly once 7-foot-3 big man Adam Trapp went down with a knee injury Feb. 16 at Two Harbors.
The Eskomos proceeded to go 4-0 against the likes of St. Croix Lutheran, St. Cloud Cathedral, Crosby-Ironton and Virginia.
"They played together very, very well," Esko coach Mike Devney said. "It was a little bit different kind of basketball - more perimeter play, maybe a little bit more get it up the floor and try and get some transition baskets."
The Eskomos and Virginia are the top seeds in Section 7AA.
Esko has won 12 in a row and hosts Pierz in a first-round contest. Devney said Trapp suffered a "deep bone bruise of the knee" and won't play tonight, but would be back for Saturday's quarterfinal if the Eskomos advance.
Esko is allowing less than 38 points a game during its winning streak and is vying for a return to the Class AA state tournament after Crosby-Ironton ended the Eskomos' four-year run atop the section last March. If that comes to fruition, Devney would become the newest member of the 500-win club - he's at 496.
• Princeton ran away with the No. 1 seed in Section 7AAA as just about everybody else spent the season beating up on each other. No other team has fewer than three section losses. Underscoring the unpredictability: Hermantown is No. 6, but the Hawks' past three games were wins over Grand Rapids, North Branch and second-seeded Hibbing. And the Hawks routed Duluth Denfeld 99-74 on Dec. 14 only to fall to the Hunters 77-62 on Jan. 30. Those clubs meet tonight at Denfeld, winners of 10 of 11.
• Duluth East is the seventh seed in Section 7AAAA and opens Wednesday at No. 2 Cambridge-Isanti, where the Greyhounds' Rhett McDonald will coach against his father, the Bluejackets' Mike McDonald, in a rematch of their regular-season finale, which East claimed 75-60.
• In Section 7A, North Woods and Wrenshall are the No. 1 seeds. The 25-win Grizzlies, runners-up in Class A last year, endured their lone blemish Feb. 15 at Virginia. North Woods' closest call against a section opponent came Dec. 5, 77-59 over Bigfork.
FINAL NEWS TRIBUNE BOYS BASKETBALL RANKINGS
(Enrollment over 400)
1. Duluth Denfeld 19-7
2. Hibbing 19-7
3. Cloquet 15-11
4. Proctor 17-9
(Enrollment under 400)
1. Esko 22-4
2. Virginia 21-5
3. North Woods 25-1
4. Greenway 23-3