Hermantown girls basketball coach Beth Clark is in her 33rd season coaching the Hawks, though she still has to double check to make sure.

“That sounds about right,” she said. “It’s in the 30s, I think.”

Forgive Clark for the years blending together. The most important thing is she still treats the current year, the current practice, with the same enthusiasm as her first.

“As I told somebody today, it’s the best part of my day,” said Clark, who also serves as Hermantown’s athletic director. “Dealing with COVID-19 in an AD world can be stressful at times, but I can leave that office at 3 o’clock and go to practice, and everything’s awesome. It’s a release, it is. It’s fun, the kids are awesome, and it’s fun to see them have success.”

And lately, the Hawks have had plenty of success.

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Hermantown went 26-5 last season while advancing to the Class AAA state tournament, where they went 0-2, the Hawks’ season ending the day before the tournament was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Clark graduated a great group of seven seniors, gritty players, unselfish players, not worried about their stats kind of players, but like strong programs often do, they reload.

The Hawks graduated three starters from their Section 7AAA championship team but return eight seniors, including four who are starting.

“Those players are hungry,” Clark said. “They see the success the girls ahead of them had, and they know that if they are patient, they’ll get their chance, and they work hard for that. And to be part of a team that is having success, that helps, too, obviously. Winning takes care of a lot of that stuff.”

Success breeds success, of course, and few have been as successful as senior Elly Schmitz.

Schmitz, a 6-foot forward, was a News Tribune All-Area Second Team selection last year after averaging 15 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. This season, with Hermantown leaning a little more on her, the University of Sioux Falls recruit is pouring in more than 20 points per game, topping 1,000 for her career.

Schmitz said she stayed upbeat and optimistic that COVID-19 wouldn’t ruin her senior season. Whenever she couldn’t get into the gym due to restrictions in place attempting to slow the spread of the virus, Schmitz spent a lot of time playing basketball in the driveway with her younger brothers. After all, what are younger brothers for?

“This just feels great playing again after not playing for so long, and just actually getting to do something with other people,” Schmitz said. “Now the hope is we’ll get a section and a state tournament. I think we have a great team and will be able to get back to state. That’s definitely one of our goals.”

Besides Schmitz, senior Maiah Christianson (8.0 ppg, 3.5 apg, 2.0 spg) is the other returning Hermantown starter and is strong defensively.

Ashley Hill and Avery Farrell have looked good hitting shots early this season, while sophomore Liv Birkeland drained four 3-pointers and scored 17 points in a 64-31 rout at Hibbing Tuesday night, a place the Hawks often struggle.

Hermantown (4-1) had another tough task Thursday when the Hawks played at Superior, falling 71-59 in the Lake Superior Conference game despite the Spartans only dressing six players.

“We’ve got turnover, but we also have kids stepping into those roles and providing that leadership that helps us be competitive, because ultimately, that’s the goal, to be competitive,” Clark said. “You look at that schedule right now, we don’t have a weak sister on it. Every game is going to be tough. But for us as coaches, that’s fun, that’s when you find out if this kid is going to be as competitive as you think they are.”

Clark said the Hawks will “ride the wings” of their seniors this season, but she’s the Rock of Gibraltar when it comes to this program, year after year.

How much longer will she coach? Clark has been around so long a reporter doesn’t have to ask that question. She does it for you.

“It’s about the relationships you build with kids and other coaches, and I just love it,” Clark said. “I don’t know how long I’ll do it, but I love doing what I’m doing. It’s fun, and it’s good for me.”

Elsewhere in Section 7AAA

Duluth Denfeld will have to replace the likes of Stephanie Ferguson and Elizabeth Emmel but has three solid returners in Selah Reinertsen, Lexi Lowinski and Tallie Boheim.

“We are playing some teams this year that we should be able to compete with if we stay healthy,” said Adair Ballavance, in her 10th year coaching the Hunters.

Cloquet stumbled to a 3-24 record a season ago but should be improved with the return of all but one starter, including the Lumberjacks’ top two scorers in junior Maddie Young (12.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and sophomore Alexa Snesrud (11.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.0 spg). Cloquet is experienced with seniors Gracie Meagher and Cristina Genita and juniors Katie Turner, Caley Kruse and Justice Paro having played in all 27 games last season. A talented freshmen class will also contribute.

Cloquet is known for having multisport athletes. The Lumberjacks typically field some of the area’s strongest track teams and half of the girls basketball roster are members of the Lumberjacks’ two-time Section 7A champion soccer squad. That includes Young, the daughter of head coach Heather Young.

Grand Rapids had its incredible streak of nine straight section final appearances snapped last year after getting knocked out by Hermantown in the Section 7AAA semifinals. While the Thunderhawks graduated a strong senior class, including Mya Roberts (8.8 ppg), they return the likes of sophomore guard Taryn Hamling (15.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 4.3 spg), senior center Jenny Bowman (11.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 3.3 spg) and freshman forward Jessika Lofstrom (9.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg). Freshman power forward Braya LaPlant is back after missing the first few games with a wrist injury, as are sophomore guards Kate Jamtgaard (7.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Kyra Giffen (5.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.7 apg).

While Grand Rapids might be young, they’re experienced and talented and off to a 3-1 start, with the lone loss being to Section 7AA power Duluth Marshall. Seventh-year coach Kris Hamling expects Hermantown and Chisago Lakes to be strong.

“It’s an amazing group of talented athletes who are ready to work hard and achieve their goals,” Hamling said. “So far I have already seen quite a bit of improvement. They execute well and make the changes that need to be made. This year I think our section is wide open. We have all lost a few great players, but we all have some great returning players.”

Hibbing has a new coach in Matt Erickson, who takes over after serving the previous six years assisting Dave LaCoe. The Bluejackets graduated All-Area Second Team performer Kourtney Manning (14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) but return four starters from last year’s 16-13 team in seniors Haley Hawkinson, Jacie Clusiau, Fanci Williams and MaKenzie Clough. Hibbing has advanced to the Section 7AAA final the past two seasons, falling to Hermantown 45-43 last season after advancing to the state tournament the year before.

“Our goal is to compete for another section title,” Erickson said. “Returning four starters puts us in a good position to do that, but our section is very competitive, with any team being able to win on any given night. We need to come ready to play. There will be some tight games, which will be a lot of fun. I expect our senior leadership and experience to give us an edge.”

Section 7AAAA

After going 4-23 in 2018-19, 2-25 the two seasons before that and 3-24 in 2015-16, Duluth East bounced back nicely last season under first-year coach Rich Windt, going 11-16.

This season the wins have been hard to come by but the Greyhounds (0-5) have been competitive, with their first four losses by nine points or less.

East graduated captain Macy Hermanson (11.4 ppg, 1,044 career points) and Shay Callaway (8.4 ppg, 2.6 spg) and also lost sophomore Rachel Hagen (6.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Greyhounds, however, have players to build around in sophomore Ashlynn Guenther (14.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and junior Macey DeRosier (5.0 ppg, 2.8 spg, 2.4 apg).

Wisconsin update

Superior is off to a 6-2 start after an impressive 71-59 Lake Superior Conference victory over visiting Hermantown Thursday night despite the Spartans dressing only six players.

With some players opting out this season, Superior has an unusual roster for a school its size, with Molly Lenmark being the lone senior.

Sophomore Savannah Leopold has led the way at 19 points per game and is a good 3-pointer shooter. Six-foot freshman Kloe Zentkowski is an up-and-coming point guard who is next at 11.7 ppg, followed by sophomore Emma Raye (9.7 ppg) and freshman Eva Peterson (7.6 ppg).

Leopold and Raye are the team’s lone returning starters, and while this squad is young, they’ll be dangerous for years to come.

Northwestern opened the season Dec. 5 and already has more than a dozen games in, albeit with a couple COVID-related hiccups along the way. The Tigers are 11-2 and 10-1 in the Heart O’ North Conference after a 96-37 rout of Spooner Thursday night in Maple, their first game in 17 days after a two-week quarantine.

Sophomore guard Tieryn Plasch is having an outstanding sophomore season at 20.2 ppg while making 48.5% of her shots from the field and 3.5 3-pointers per contest — and that was before pouring in 31 against Spooner and seven 3s.

Senior Allison Luoma, a 6-foot forward, is next at 13.4 ppg, followed by sophomore guard Brynn Erickson (7.0 ppg) and senior forward Kendall Sletten (6.5 ppg).