Prep girls basketball playoff preview: Reloaded Esko takes aim at 7AA title

A year after star-studded Esko fell just short of the girls basketball state tournament, the Eskomos may have an easier path to the Target Center despite graduating so much firepower from last year's...

Girls basketball
Ashley Bergerson of Esko looks to pass in a high school girls basketball game against North Woods High School earlier this season. (2013 file / News Tribune)

A year after star-studded Esko fell just short of the girls basketball state tournament, the Eskomos may have an easier path to the Target Center despite graduating so much firepower from last year's

26-win squad.

That's because Braham is no longer in Section 7AA.

Certainly, that has to please Esko coach Scott Antonutti as he prepares the No. 1 seed in 7AA's South Subsection for Wednesday's playoff opener against No. 8 Pine City (2-23).

"People have asked me that before and, to be honest, I haven't thought much about it," Antonutti said. "It's never been anything I can control, so I haven't spent a lot of energy on it. We haven't had that conversation with the girls."


The Eskomos have won 21 games -- just two fewer than they entered last postseason. That, in itself, is remarkable considering the igloo-sized holes the team had to fill entering the current campaign. Stalwarts Savanna Trapp, Marisa Shady and Claudia Turner all graduated after leading Esko to the 2013 section final, where the Eskomos lost 58-53 to

Rebekah Dahlman and Braham.

The Bombers now call Section 5AA home.

Section 7AA is still plenty difficult, Antonutti said.

International Falls, the North Subsection's No. 1 seed, is 19-7 behind the steady play of Teagan Anderson and Maddie Filipiak. The bracket's No. 2 seeds -- Barnum (16-8) in the south and Mesabi East (16-9) in the north -- both are imposing, and the

No. 3 seed in the south, Proctor (10-16), gave Esko everything it could handle in an eventual three-point loss in mid-January.

"It's a handful this year," Antonutti said. "I think it could come down to any one of about six teams. It's wide-open."

Last year's veteran-laden Esko club gave way to one dominated by youth. A pair of freshmen, Ava Gonsorowski and Judy Wagemaker, team with junior Ashley Bergerson to form a balanced offense.


Esko hasn't lost to a Class AA opponent all season -- though the Eskomos did lose to Class A Mountain Iron-Buhl in their season opener. Esko's other defeats came against Class AAA Cloquet and Grand Rapids, Class AAAA Duluth East and Superior, one of Wisconsin's best Division 1 teams.

Antonutti isn't surprised the Eskomos are right back in the mix for a section title. Sure, last year's senior class was dominant, but the replacements can play a little, too.

"I anticipated having a pretty good season," Antonutti said. "I felt like we had a good nucleus of girls coming back."

First-round games are Wednesday, and the quarterfinals are Saturday at Duluth Denfeld.

North Woods, MIB on collision course in 7A

Mountain Iron-Buhl and North Woods are two of the top teams in Class A, with the Rangers ranked third in the state and the Grizzlies seventh. Unfortunately, only one of them can get to the state tournament.

MIB posted a 57-49 victory over North Woods on Jan. 16, and while there's an excellent chance that game doubled as a preview of next week's Section 7A final, both coaches are wary of discussing a potential rematch.

"We focus on each team as they come," Rangers coach Jeff Buffetta said.


MIB beat the Grizzlies 48-44 in last year's section final. That followed North Woods' 52-50 victory in the regular season.

"It's become quite a rivalry and we'd definitely like to get another shot at them, but right now we're just taking it one game at a time," Grizzlies coach Ashlee Zupancich said. "Our focus is on (first-round opponent) Ely."

The Rangers (24-2) are the North Subsection's No. 1 seed, while North Woods (22-2) is No. 2.

MIB is led by high-scoring freshmen Chelsea Mason (18.3 ppg) and Mya Buffetta (15.1). Lissy McCulloch and Bemidji State-bound Allie Knuti also are double-digit scorers.

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, rely primarily on Darby Youngstrom and Destinie Villebrun. Youngstrom is Northeastern Minnesota's all-time leading scorer with 2,763 career points. Villebrun has surpassed the 1K mark in both points and rebounds.

"They've got a nice team in general, but Darby and Destinie are two of the best players in northern Minnesota," Jeff Buffetta said.

MIB is the defending champ and is seeking its fourth consecutive trip to state.

In the South Subsection, McGregor (20-4), with its own 2,000-point scorer in Abby Hawkinson, is the top seed. Cromwell (14-9) is No. 2.


The Section 7A playoffs start tonight with three play-in games. They continue Thursday, with the quarterfinals Saturday at Minnesota Duluth's Romano Gymnasium.

Duluth East rolls into playoffs on winning streak

Duluth East has been up and down for much of the winter, but the Greyhounds (10-15) are entering the Section 7AAAA playoffs on a roll, having won four straight against quality opponents -- Cloquet, Esko, Braham and Grand Rapids.

The strong finish to the regular season earned East the fifth seed and a quarterfinal game Thursday at No. 4 Cambridge-Isanti (15-10). The two teams met Feb. 15, with the Bluejackets eking out a 56-55 win.

Hannah Johnson gives the Greyhounds a strong post presence. The junior center is averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game, to go along with 10.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per night.

Liz Libbon and Mia Anderson average 9.5 and 8.9 points, respectively.

Anoka is the top seed in Section 7AAAA.

Chasing Chisago in Section 7AAA


While the Section 7AAA bracket is not yet finalized, defending champ Chisago Lakes Area is expected to be the No. 1 seed.

Iowa State recruit Bryanna Fernstrom has led the Wildcats to an 18-6 mark entering tonight's regular-season finale at Cloquet. The 6-foot-5 center is averaging 25.3 points and 13.1 rebounds per game.

The team that Chisago Lakes beat in last year's section championship game, Grand Rapids, should garner the second seed. Taylor Kane, a 6-foot junior, is averaging more than 17 points per game. Eighth-grader Heaven Hamling, meanwhile, is shooting close to 40 percent from beyond the arc.

The Thunderhawks (17-9) lost to Chisago Lakes 62-55 in early January.

In a section without an overwhelming favorite, Princeton (12-14), Hermantown and Cloquet all could factor into the equation.

Hermantown (16-9) enters the postseason on a five-game winning streak, which includes a 61-45 victory at Grand Rapids. The Hawks lost to the Thunderhawks 60-49 at home in December.

Cloquet (14-10) has lost five of its past seven following victories over Esko and Hermantown. Jaiden Cofield, who scored her 1,000th career point in a Feb. 15 loss to Grand Rapids, is no longer with the team.

Kassidy Steen is averaging about 19 points a night for the Lumberjacks.

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