Esko boys basketball players wanted to make sure they didn't leave coach Mike Devney on the doorstep of a milestone.

So they broke down the door.

The Eskomos bottled up Virginia using a pesky 2-3 zone defense and beat the Blue Devils 50-33 in the Section 7AA championship game Friday night at Romano Gym to guarantee a spot in next week's Class A state tournament and sew up Devney's 500th career high school coaching victory.

The 19-year Esko coach, a marketing and economics teacher in the Duluth school system, is being forced out after a compromise to coach one more season after he originally was on the hot seat last spring. Minnesota high school coaches are "at-will" employees and can have their contracts not renewed after any season.

But the Eskomos made sure his departure wouldn't take place before the school's seventh all-time state tournament appearance, with five in the last six years including a state title in 2014. Esko (26-4) will face an undetermined opponent in a Class AA quarterfinal Wednesday evening.

"We know it's his last (season) and we're playing the games for him," said senior guard Quinn Fischer, who led all scorers with 18 points. "Tonight was for him. Getting his 500th win was huge for all of us and getting back to the state tournament is great for the whole team.

Quinn Fischer (1) of Esko shoots the ball against Jayden Bernard (22) and Bryce Kennedy (52) of Virginia Friday.
Quinn Fischer (1) of Esko shoots the ball against Jayden Bernard (22) and Bryce Kennedy (52) of Virginia Friday.

"He's been my coach the past three years and I've loved every moment of it."

Devney, who wouldn't discuss the reasons for his departure - sources have told the News Tribune it was related to parental and administration displeasure - says his players have handled the difficult situation with aplomb.

"The kids have been tremendous," he said. "It is what it is and you've got to deal with it, but the kids have been tremendous. Quite a few of them went to bat for me, and I'm thankful for that."

Virginia coach Rich Odell, who has seen shifting sands in the coaching world in his three decades in the job, empathized with Devney's plight.

"It's gotten worse," Odell, who has 595 career wins, said about the coaching profession. "There's more pressures ... and most coaches, if you are in it long enough, are going to make someone unhappy. You're in the public eye and dealing with emotional situations.

"I'm not in a position to judge what happened to Mike, good, bad or otherwise, but all I know is that competing against Mike is a privilege. He's always coached his kids very well. They are very disciplined and they know the game. He works hard at what he does."

No. 500 may not have been possible without a midseason switch from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone defense.

Devney made the move after a loss to Perham, and the team has gone 16-0 since.

"It's a lot easier to go from man to a zone than zone to man," Devney said. "I was studying (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim and they don't do any zone drills, all they do is man-to-man drills and then they go play zone. And they have the best zone in college basketball.

"So if you can play a decent man-to-man, you should be able to play a decent zone. The kids adjusted well."

Even though the Blue Devils (24-6) saw Esko's defense in a 55-44 defeat in the regular-season finale, they were unable to solve it. Failing to get anything inside against 7-foot-3 center Adam Trapp, the Blue Devils clanked shot after shot off the rim from outside, giving new meaning to the term Iron Rangers.

"You're not going to beat a quality team like Esko shooting the ball as poorly as we did, and certainly having a 7-foot-3 kid in the middle makes a difference," Odell said. "But we didn't shoot well from anywhere."

Fischer credited assistant coach Shane Deadrick with teaching the zone defense and said the players have bought into the system.

"Adam was protecting the paint well and we were closing out with our hands held high," Fischer said. "We did that the whole game and wore them down in the end."

And earned a chance to give Devney a fitting farewell.


Virginia 15-18-33 Esko 25-25-50

Virginia - Nathan Fink 12, Jayden Bernard 10, Ethan Youso 3, Bryce Kennedy 4, Tyler Herberg 4. Totals 13 5-8 33.

3-point goals - Fink 2, Bernard 2.

Esko - Quinn Fischer 18, Trevor Spindler 8, Camden Berger 13, Adam Trapp 4, Corey Kauma 4. Totals 18 10-12 50.

3-point goals - Spindler 2, Berger.