Prep boys basketball: Esko's success not by accident
Trevor Spindler went from Esko’s leading scorer to its biggest cheerleader after a mid-December car accident left him unable to play.
When it became evident that his injuries wouldn’t be healed before the Section 7AA boys basketball playoffs, Eskomos coach Derek Anderson set out to find a way to honor his senior guard.
So before the team’s senior night against Virginia, Anderson asked Blue Devils coaches if they would be OK with letting Spindler score a basket at the start of the game to close his varsity career.
And that’s exactly what happened as Spindler, who suffered a broken pelvis, a lacerated bladder and other injuries when the car he was riding in as a passenger was T-boned by another vehicle, hobbled out on the court on crutches.
“They wanted to give me one last shot,” Spindler recalled. “Virginia hit a layup after they won the tip. Then we set up a play with us seniors and passed the ball down the court to me and I hit my layup.”
The Eskomos called time and Spindler came to the bench.
“It was pretty cool,” Spindler said. “The whole crowd erupted and the team went crazy. It was a good feeling since I haven’t gotten that all season. It was a bittersweet basket, but it was good to score.”
Despite losing such a crucial cog, the Eskomos (19-7) played their way into a No. 1 seed in 7AA and received a bye in Thursday’s first round.
“We had to change quite a bit because (Spindler) was a big part of everything we were doing on offense and defense,” Anderson said. “The kids responded really well to that. Obviously you can’t replace somebody like him, so everybody stepped up their game and bought into the whole team concept.”
Among those who played key roles were Payton Wefel, who averaged more than 22 points a game, and James LeGarde, who has a penchant for putting up big numbers against good teams.
“We’ve had guys step up and take on some bigger roles,” Wefel said. “We’re doing our best to try and pick up what (Spindler) did for the team, but it’s obviously not the same.”
Both Wefel and LeGarde, however, were among players who suffered through a recent flu bug.
“It’s gone around our team, but we’re hoping we get everybody back and healthy for the playoffs,” Anderson said.
They will need everyone back to compete with a motivated Moose Lake-Willow River (22-4), which sits as the No. 2 seed in Esko’s subsection and is 14-1 since blowing a double-digit lead to Esko at midseason.
Virginia, which lost 84-65 to Esko, and Iron Range Conference rival Greenway are the top two seeds in the other subsection.
“Top to bottom, this is one of the better years as far as the section goes,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be a tough section to get out of.”
Esko players expect all the adversity the team has faced will help in the long run.
“It’s one and done, lose a game and we’re out,” Wefel said. “With everything that we’ve gone through this season, it will help us a lot. If we all just work together and play to our potential, I think we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
No matter how long the Eskomos last in the playoffs, they will have one special teammate cheering them on.
“I’m happy they got the 1 seed and am hoping they can make a run,” Spindler said.
Cardinals eye repeat
Cromwell-Wright primarily plays Section 7A opponents during the regular season but is slotted into 5A for the playoffs.
That unfamiliarity could pose trouble for most teams, but the Cardinals have found it to their liking.
Cromwell-Wright (19-4) ended a 23-year state tournament drought by winning 5A a year ago and hopes to re-create that success as the section’s No. 1 seed this season.
“The last couple years it’s been a good thing,” Cardinals coach Bill Pocernich said. “We have to scout 10 teams we don’t see during the year. But in Section 5, teams don’t know us well so that gives us more freedom to play how we want.”
First-round foe Swanville is one of those teams not on the Cardinals’ usual diet of opponents.
While last year’s state quarterfinal appearance wasn’t so unexpected, the Cardinals began this season with a vastly different lineup.
“We graduated four starters so there were lots of question marks still to be answered,” Pocernich said. “The kids responded well and stepped into their roles.”
Senior guard Micah Pocernich, the lone returning starter, is averaging 25 points per game, while senior forward Gage Zoeller, a reserve in 2018-19, is tossing in about 18 a game.
The team’s game plan revolves around the younger Pocernich.
“Offensively we put the ball in his hands, and more often than not good things have happened,” the coach said.
Section 7A top seed Nashwauk-Keewatin defeated Cromwell-Wright in its regular-season finale last week and now turns its attention toward qualifying for the state tournament for the first time since the school’s only appearance ended in the 2004 Class A title game.
The Spartans (22-4) lost in overtime to North Woods early in the season but are on a 16-1 roll heading into Wednesday’s opening round of a potentially topsy-turvy tournament.
The Grizzlies are seeded second, though they stubbed their toe in the regular-season finale against fourth-seeded Deer River.
Ely, Fond du Lac Ojibwe and Mountain Iron-Buhl, led by freshman wunderkind Asher Zubich’s 31 points per game, all could factor into what is expected to be a high-scoring tournament.