When Duluth East boys basketball players walked off the Elk River High School court last March, little did anyone know it would take nearly 10 months for them to reunite.
The day after the Greyhounds’ 81-73 loss to Cambridge-Isanti in the Section 7AAAA championship game, the Minnesota State High School League suspended the remainder of the winter sports season and later canceled the spring season as well due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fall athletics were cut short and the winter campaign was delayed a month and a half and is still in jeopardy of a proper conclusion at a pending state tournament.
The Greyhounds’ path to a potential postseason was made even more difficult when junior point guard Will Van Scoy was lost for the season due to injury.
Through a fall of illness and injury, the Greyhounds are taking it one day at a time.
“We need to be in the mindset of being able to adapt and adjust as well as we can,” East coach Rhett McDonald said. “I think the kids have done that as well as anyone.”
McDonald met virtually with his players and coaches three times a week to set a practice routine so they wouldn’t have to waste precious practice time discussing it when they returned to the court. Players returned to practice for the first time on Jan. 4 and the Greyhounds opened the season 10 days later at Grand Rapids, meaning conditioning will be a factor early in the season.
“We were more on our own the past few weeks to get in shape, but at the same time everyone in the state was going through the same thing,” 6-foot-9 senior center Noah Paulson said.
Paulson and fellow Minnesota Duluth commit Mattie Thompson, a 6-7 wing, are the primary reasons why East is ranked in the top 10 in Class AAAA. Paulson averaged 15 points and eight rebounds a game last season while Thompson averaged 17 points and seven boards.
Despite the return of his big men, McDonald says he may have to simplify the game plan after the loss of Van Scoy.
“It’s tough losing a kid like Will who has started for us for quite some time,” McDonald said. “There are so many things that we now notice that he did that we didn’t understand how important he was. We can’t fill that void so we’re trying to do our best to substitute.”
McDonald had not settled on a lineup during the first week of practice, but Thompson and Paulson are confident the hole will be filled.
“Losing Will was tough and other guys will need to step up and fill the point guard role more than ever,” Thompson said.
Paulson added: “We have a great program so we know other guys will fill in. We have to play our best and get better every day.”
McDonald is less concerned about any additional scoring pressure being placed on the shoulders of his star players than he is on other fundamental aspects of the game.
“We need to guard harder and rebound better,” the coach said. “Those are two reasons why we lost the section championship game last year. That’s been our focus.”
East went 24-5 last season — just two years removed from a 6-21 record — winning 11 straight before falling in the section final.
“I am sure we are considered the favorites for the Section 7AAAA title,” McDonald said. “But that comes with great responsibility. Quite simply, we want to be healthy enough to get us into the postseason at this point. I don't think many of our kids are even thinking about a section championship game. We just want to get better and stay on the floor.”
While last year was a season to remember, this year is sure to be a hard one to forget.
“It’s just a blessing that we get to be on the court every day so I’m going to take advantage of it,” Thompson said. “Hopefully we get a state tournament and we’ll see where that takes us. You don’t know how many more practices or games you’ll have, so just enjoy it.”
Hawks face uphill battle
Hermantown’s 21 victories were the team’s most since the 2012-13 season and the team ended up four points shy of claiming the Section 7AAA title.
But after graduating their top seven players — Peter Soumis (24.5 ppg), Kaden Kucza, Dalton Everett, Sam Mesedahl, Kevin Thomas, Owen Wikstrom and Steven Kragseth — the Hawks may be in for a transition season. The seven returning players have a grand total of 93 combined varsity minutes played.
Senior guard Ryan Zastrow and sophomore guard Blake Schmitz have the most experience with seniors Kadence Tinsley, junior Michael Lau and sophomore Keaton Christianson having had reps on the court..
“While some consider this a ‘rebuilding year,’ I don't think you can have those in high school,” Hawks coach Andy Fenske said. “We aren't able to recruit kids like other programs, so we're in a transition year where we're breaking down and figuring out our identity. We know we're going to go through some growing pains, but this group of young men is incredibly coachable, adapts to challenges on the fly and is eager to showcase what they're able to do.”
Hibbing is loaded with four returners who averaged double figures in scoring last season.
Junior guard Ayden McDonald did his best LeBron James impersonation by averaging 21.6 points, 10.4 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 3.9 steals per game, while Mayson Brown (16 ppg), Tre Holmes (15.1 ppg) and 6-foot-6 Parker Maki (10.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg) help give the Bluejackets the necessary experience to contend.
Coach Joel McDonald hopes to get in the maximum 18 regular-season games.
“We need to act in a way that gives us the best chance to help make that happen,” McDonald said. “Obviously we are hoping for a postseason and would like to get a chance to win a Section 7AAA title as we have nearly everyone back from last season.”
Grand Rapids sports a new look as longtime assistant Scott Bachmann takes over for Dan Elhard, who served as head coach for 18 seasons and brought the Thunderhawks to nine state tournaments and a Class AAA runner-up finish in 2010.
The Thunderhawks lost a lot of production and leadership as John Sutherland (31 ppg, 13 rpg), the Northland’s leading scorer, took his talents to UMD. Easton Fothergill, Dawson Persons, David Ellies and Jacob Johnson also graduated, leaving Trent Johnson (6 ppg), Brady Bachmann (6 ppg) and Austin Hanson (8 ppg) as the key players returning.
“We will have a good core group who will have to accept the challenge of increased roles. I would expect us to get better as the season progresses,” said Bachmann, who was head coach at Northland-Remer for 10 seasons before spending the last 13 as Elhard’s assistant.
Cloquet returns all five starters from a team that went 9-18, including senior Adam Schneider (21 ppg), who surpassed 1,000 career points as a junior. Dylan Heehn and Alec Turnbull averaged in double figures, while Tyler Issendorf and Jack Sorensen do the things that don’t show up in the box score.
“It’s hard to have expectations given where we are, but I like this group,” Lumberjacks coach Steve Battaglia said. “These guys love basketball and are physical. I don’t see why we can’t compete with everybody. Senior-dominated teams are special and that’s where we are this year.”
Duluth Denfeld only won four games last season despite sporting a 25-point-per-game scorer in Josh Reinertsen and a 22-point scorer in Armon Freeman.
Reinertsen and Freeman graduated and the Hunters will work in five part-time starters from a year ago — 6-4 wing Jon Bongiovanni, 6-5 center Dane Dzuck and guards Carter Kilroy, William Woodfork and Aiden Persson — into the core group this winter.
“We have some really good kids to work with,” Denfeld coach Mike Devney said. “I think this is a group that will continually strive to improve and will play together.”
Former Esko and St. Scholastica standout Kory Deadrick, who served as head coach of the Proctor boys last season, was added to the coaching staff.