Confident Coleman ready to carry Duluth East

Shaq Coleman can trace his boost in confidence to one single moment in time. A backup guard on a Duluth East team loaded with talent, the Greyhounds' state tournament fate was left in Coleman's hands at the end of the 2012 Section 7AAAA champions...

Shaq Coleman
Duluth East's Shaq Coleman (right) is oozing confidence as he tries to lead the Greyhounds to a Section 7AAAA championship. Meanwhile, Grand Rapids faces a daunting trek through Section 7AAA without star Alex Illikainen, who broke his left hand two weeks ago. (2011 file photo / News Tribune)

Shaq Coleman can trace his boost in confidence to one single moment in time.

A backup guard on a Duluth East team loaded with talent, the Greyhounds' state tournament fate was left in Coleman's hands at the end of the 2012 Section 7AAAA championship game.

The reserve guard came through, hitting a half-court buzzer-beater to tip Blaine, 64-62.

That clutch shot gave Coleman the confidence to become East's go-to player as a senior.

"Now I know I can make big shots," he said. "At the end of the game, I want the ball in my hands. I'm more relaxed and calmer."


Coleman averaged about 25 points per game to lead the Greyhounds (14-12), who received the No. 2 seed and open the playoffs at home against Anoka on Thursday. St. Francis, which edged East in overtime last week, garnered the No. 1 seed and received a first-round bye.

"I want to play them again," Coleman said. "We didn't play our best basketball and they played pretty well. They are a solid team all-around, but I think we can beat them."

Coleman added to his game-winning heroics this season, hitting another 3-pointer at the buzzer to hand Class A top-ranked Maranatha Christian Academy its lone loss of the season.

"I had confidence in myself, so I knew I could have a big season, but I didn't really expect to play as well as I have," Coleman said. "I've been playing consistently, and that's been an issue in the past. Now it's all coming to me."

First-year coach Rhett McDonald has been pleased with Coleman's play.

"Shaq does a lot of good things," McDonald said. "He's a guy who can score in bunches, but is not a jump shooter. He's very consistent in his scoring because he goes to the basket. I don't think there's a team in our section that has that type of guy. There are a lot of teams in our section that are jump-shooting teams, and when you have jump-shooting teams it only takes one cold-shooting night to lose.

"I like Shaq because he goes right to the rim, plays through contact and, I believe, is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, guy in the section."

East, however, nearly lost the services of its star-in-the-making. Before the season, Coleman transferred to Fond du Lac Ojibwe High School in Cloquet and required an appeal to the Minnesota State High School League in order to return to the school and play athletics. Coleman preferred not to discuss the move, calling it a "personal" decision, and MSHSL officials could not be reached for comment to clarify how the appeals process allows for such a situation. School officials are not allowed to comment due to data privacy laws.


New to the job, McDonald said he didn't get involved in the matter. He's just glad to have ended up coaching Coleman.

"We would not be nearly as good without him this year," he said.


Broken hand sidelines Illikainen, perhaps grand Rapids' chances

If Grand Rapids is to win a sixth consecutive Section 7AAA title, it will have to be done without the team's star player.

Six-foot-9 sophomore center Alex Illikainen, a major NCAA Division I college recruit, broke his left hand in practice two weeks ago and likely will miss the section playoffs and, possibly, the Class AAA state tournament -- if the Thunderhawks make it that far.

That's become a more difficult proposition with Illikainen on the bench. Grand Rapids (17-9) has lost four out of the five games since he broke the middle metacarpal bone in his left hand going for a rebound in a practice last month.

Illikainen's last visit to Tria Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington, Minn., didn't offer good news.


"As of right now, they said, 'Out for the season,' " Illikainen said Sunday of doctors' prognosis.

No surgery was necessary, meaning Illikainen's plans to play with the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Cyclones Amateur Athletic Union team are still intact. He plans to set up another visit within a week or two to see if he would be available if the Thunderhawks reach the state tournament.

But first, the No. 2 seed must navigate through a field that includes in-form Hermantown (23-3) and Cloquet (17-9).

"It is tough at the end of the season when you have to readjust the roles for everybody and you are putting young players in who haven't played as many minutes as they are being asked to play now," said Grand Rapids coach Dan Elhard, whose team opens Friday with a quarterfinal against North Branch. "We were already a young, inexperienced team, and now we just got younger."

Staffed with just two seniors and little height, the Thunderhawks have lost to five-win Duluth Denfeld, an average Detroit Lakes team and then by 51 and 30 points, respectively, to Class AAAA powers Brainerd and Moorhead.

"We've had to retool offensively and defensively, and do it on the fly without a whole lot of practice time," Elhard said. "It's been a work in progress. We've had flashes where we look pretty good, but I'm glad we have a few days of practice to work on some things."

A.J. Watland has filled some of the scoring void, scoring 34 and 28 points in a pair of games, but opponents no longer have to worry about double-teaming anyone.

"Without having me in there, it allows (opponents) to play man-to-man and not have to focus down low," said Illikainen, who wears a brace on his hand most of the day.


"A.J. has supplied a lot of (scoring), but that's not enough," Elhard said. "When you get into the playoffs, you have to have that second and third player step up. We're hoping we can all click at the same time."

Grand Rapids' loss is Hermantown's gain. The top-seeded Hawks already own a 15-point victory over a healthy Grand Rapids team and enter the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak. Senior Kevin Folman has supplied the scoring from the perimeter and sophomore brute Kole Zuidmulder does the damage inside.

"(Coach) Mike (Pothast) has done a great job with them," Elhard said. "They play so hard and have a great rotation of players, and are very strong inside with good guards to go with it."

Cloquet, led by the inside scoring of Adam Laine and Aaron Johnson and the 3-point shooting of Dillon Johnson, finished the season on a 12-2 run and are seeded fourth.

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