When COVID-19 shut down the Moose Lake-Willow River football team’s season last fall, it came as a shock to players used to defeating their enemies.

“It’s not a good feeling at all,” senior Brady Watrin said. “We played four games, and the fourth game, none of us knew it was our last game. When we found out that next week that the rest of the season was canceled, it was a gut punch.”

That’s why everyone on the Rebels boys basketball team is being careful this winter to adhere to coronavirus protocols in hopes of avoiding a similar fate.

Moose Lake-Willow River’s Brady Watrin dunks the ball in practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Moose Lake-Willow River’s Brady Watrin dunks the ball in practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

“We’re really hoping that no one gets it on the team,” said Watrin, who, though asymptomatic, was among several Rebels football players to contract COVID-19. “Hopefully we can get back in school and return to somewhat normal. Coach talked about limiting where you go so that none of us get it and have the chance of something being canceled.”

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It would be a shame for a double whammy to befall MLWR, which went 23-5 last season and returns eight of its top 10 players.

Coach Wes Cummins is confident his players will take the threat seriously and take the necessary precautions.

Moose Lake-Willow River’s Mason Olson (12) shoots a jumper during practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Moose Lake-Willow River’s Mason Olson (12) shoots a jumper during practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

“Our job might be a little easier because of the sting of not being able to play in the section tournament, and not winning a section championship is still pretty fresh and raw for our kids,” Cummins said. “Until you actually experience having your season cut short, it’s all words. It’s in the forefront of our kids’ minds, so I think our job might be a little easier than others.

“With our football season ending prematurely, our boys understand how quickly things can change. If anything, it's motivating them to play harder because they know their season can end at any moment.”

Watrin, as versatile as a Swiss Army knife, averaged 20 points per game last season while leading the team in rebounds, steals and assists. Senior guard Mason Olson led the team with 22 points an outing, and along with a talented group of five experienced juniors, makes the Rebels a viable Section 7AA contender. The Rebels opened their season last week with an 85-point rout of Silver Bay.

Olson and Watrin have been on the varsity together since ninth grade and played basketball since elementary school.

“He and I have been able to click; it’s been a fun ride. I hope we can continue it and see how it goes,” said Olson, who played quarterback in football before the season abruptly ended. “It was sad, especially since I am a senior. We didn’t get to have a last game. It just got shut down all of a sudden. I wasn’t really expecting it.”

Moose Lake-Willow River’s Mason Olson makes a pass during practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Moose Lake-Willow River’s Mason Olson makes a pass during practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

When the basketball season was delayed by Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order, it was more bad news.

“When there was a threat that this season was going to be closed down, it was a shock since we had been building for this the last four or five years,” Cummins said.

Cummins expects Crosby-Ironton, Pierz and Pequot Lakes all to be tough, though he calls Esko the team to beat.

“Until someone beats Esko, they are the champs,” the fifth-year coach said. “But this year, more than any other year that I’ve been here, there is parity across the top.”

Moose Lake-Willow River’s head coach Wes Cummins, center, talks to his players at practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Moose Lake-Willow River’s head coach Wes Cummins, center, talks to his players at practice in Moose Lake Monday morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Elsewhere in 7AA

Esko knows all about COVID-19 shutting everything down.

The Eskomos were slated to play Pierz in the section final last March when word came down that the winter season had been canceled.

That meant seniors such as Payton Wefel and James LeGarde were done playing and left this year’s returners Riley Fischer, Eli Blue, Jonah Randa and Cade Berger hungry to earn another shot at a state tournament.

“They are taking it one day at a time and not taking anything for granted,” Esko coach Derek Anderson said. “They are appreciative to be back in the gym and are motivated to get back to where we were last year.”

Whether or not the Eskomos can contend is undetermined, especially since players haven’t been in gyms for so long.

“It’s tough to tell without any summer league games or fall or anything to base it on,” Anderson said. “It will be a trial by fire. Practice has been very competitive, and players have been getting after it.”

Like virtually every year, Anderson expects his team to be playing its best at the end of the season and compete with more experienced opponents. Esko opened with a 10-point loss to Pine City.

“It’s a crazy year,” Anderson said. “The teams that return a lot of starters are going to be favored, but we’re making sure that we’re putting in the time and getting the work done so that by the end of the year, we’re right there ready to go.”

Virginia started 11-1 en route to a 21-win season that ended in the section semifinals. But the Blue Devils must mitigate the loss of Iron Range Conference scoring leader Jayden Bernard (28.3 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game), Kyle Williams (13.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and Joe Hafdahl.

Seniors Mason Carlson (15.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.2 apg), Nick Peters, Jack Toman and Dan Squires head up the returnees.

Coach Derek Aho hopes those seniors will get a shot at a state tournament by following all the COVID-19 protocols.

“As a coach during this COVID time, I’m trying hard to keep the players focused on the game of basketball and away from everything else,” Aho said. “The way we look at it is that every day we get to be in the gym together playing the game we all love is a win in itself. The games, playoffs and everything else will be a bonus.”

Duluth Marshall posted a winning record for the first time in 12 years and surprised fans by making it to the section semifinals just two years after a five-win season. Captains and returning starters Oscar Timm and Mason Boos join juniors Alex Olson and Jasper Timm in trying to give the Hilltoppers back-to-back winning records for the first time since 2005-06.

“We have goals, but our focus is the everyday mentality needed to achieve those goals,” Marshall coach Thomas Mitchell said. “I have never had a team more focused and determined to win.”

Proctor returns juniors Evan Checkalski, Dominic Jauhola and Reese Pinney, all starters from last year, though leading scorer Dylan Hom graduated, and Nick Jauhola was lost for the season with a broken leg suffered during football.

Cole Lipinski takes over as head coach after spending seven of the last eight years in the program.

“It's beneficial for me since I've known all these boys since they were in seventh grade in football and basketball,” Lipinski said. “The goals we set out at the beginning of our season were to improve upon last year’s record (9-19) and to build every day to make some noise in the playoffs.”

Two Harbors improved after an early season, 11-game losing streak and brings back most of its lineup. Guard Trent Gomez (17 ppg, 5 apg, 5 steals per game), center Jeremiah Johnson (10 ppg, 9 rpg) and forwards Eli Schlangen (8 ppg) and Clark Nelson (10 ppg, 9 rpg) pace a depth-laden Agates team.

Greenway, which is coming off a 19-win season, must overcome the graduation of Dylan DeChampeau (27.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg), who finished his career 11 points shy of 3,000, and Gordon Skaar (15.2 ppg) to compete in a tough section. The Raiders welcome back seniors J.J. Hall (9.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg), Michael Butterfield and Holden Hron, sophomore Grant Hansen (12.8 ppg, 7.1 apg) and juniors Westin Smith, Mathias MacKnight and Israel Hartman.

Mesabi East only won one-third of its games in 2019-20 but is led by exciting senior guard Hunter Hannuksela (28.1 ppg, 4.7 apg), who is closing in on 2,000 points in his career. Hannuksela is an accurate 3-point shooter who is able to penetrate the lane and is being highly recruited, according to coach Dan Darbo. With defenses likely to double team Hannuksela, the Giants’ success may rest on how players such as Brayden Leffel and Cody Fallstrom (8.8 rpg) perform.

Eveleth-Gilbert returns four starters and a pair who played ample minutes from off the bench in hopes of improving on a 9-18 record. Seniors Jake Sickel (14.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Josh Creer-Oberstar, junior Will Bittmann (15.6 ppg, Northland-leading 14.1 rpg) and sophomore Carter Mavec (15.2 ppg) give the Golden Bears a solid base from which to start, while junior Carter Flannigan and sophomore A.J. Roen earn regular minutes.