The Esko boys basketball team that took the Romano Gym court Thursday for the Section 7AA championship game was quite different from the one that played in the same game a year ago.
Gone were 7-foot-3 center Adam Trapp, News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year Quinn Fischer and 500-win head coach Mike Devney.
Those departures led many to dismiss the Eskomos' chances of returning to the state tournament for the sixth time in seven years.
"We came in with a chip on our shoulder because everybody counted us out," first-year coach Derek Anderson said. "We lost the three starters, we lost the head coach with 500 career wins, so everyone thought it was going to be a rebuilding year for us. We used that for motivation."
The Eskomos handled Pequot Lakes 58-45 in the Section 7AA final on the Minnesota Duluth campus, earning a spot in the Class AA state tournament quarterfinals next Wednesday at either Target Center or Williams Arena against an opponent to be determined.
"It feels good because we had a lot of doubters," said Esko junior forward Trevor Spindler, who scored 10 points in the victory. "People didn't think we were going to come out of the section."
The Eskomos (21-9) started the season 2-4 and suffered two double-digit defeats after a 63-53 win over Pequot Lakes at midseason. But once the players figured out their style of play, everything clicked down the stretch.
"Without a big 7-3 guy in the middle, we need a faster pace and we can't just lob it in there to (Trapp) anymore," said senior guard Camden Berger, who scored a game-high 20 points Thursday. "We look to get a lot of easier buckets in transition, we emphasize controlling the ball and not making turnovers because we don't have that 7-3 guy back there on defense."
Esko bolted to a 15-8 lead and kept the lead throughout, with the only hiccup early in the second half when the Patriots (23-7) narrowed the gap to 29-28 and 34-32 before Payton Wefel hit one of his four 3-pointers.
"We were sluggish out of the gate offensively," Patriots coach Rich Spiczka said. "We usually play with a lot of flow and a lot of rhythm. We were tight, and it was understandable since Esko is here every year and we're not.
"We got close and then Wefel's 3-pointer stabbed us in the back."
The Eskomos broke Pequot Lakes' press several times in the closing moments and either scored off the fast break or at the free-throw line.
"We played really well down the stretch," Berger said. "We controlled the ball, broke their press and handled it. We knocked down our free throws and sealed the game."
Now a team that some deemed unworthy of state consideration is back in a familiar place. It's something that Anderson saw building throughout the season as his players became comfortable in the system.
That chip on the shoulder didn't hurt.
"The kids really bought into that," Anderson said. "They were very upset - they looked at the preseason rankings and they were No. 5 in the section and ranked 32nd in the state. The kids took that as a slap in the face, and now we're back here ready to go."
Pequot Lakes 19-26-45 Esko 24-34-58
Pequot Lakes - Sean Ryan 11, Dylin Ackerman 3, Bode Magnuson 7, Tyler Manley 2, Jordan Schommer 19, Carter Sjoblad 3. Totals 17 9-17 45.
3-point goals - Ackerman, Schommer.
Esko - James Legarde 3, Jon Stodola 3, Payton Wefel 12, Riley Fischer 2, Corey Kauma 8, Trevor Spindler 10, Camden Berger 20. Totals 16 21-24 58.
3-point goals - Wefel 4, Berger.