Prep girls basketball: Upstarts seek upsets in playoffs

Of all the easy-money bracket bets this time of year, perhaps none are as safe as penciling Esko's girls basketball team into the Section 7AA final. Their six seniors were in fourth grade the last time the Eskomos didn't reach the title game at M...

Two Harbors senior Ayla Lemke takes a shot during a game against Duluth Denfeld earlier this month. (Adelle Whitefoot / Lake County News-Chronicle)

Of all the easy-money bracket bets this time of year, perhaps none are as safe as penciling Esko’s girls basketball team into the Section 7AA final.

Their six seniors were in fourth grade the last time the Eskomos didn’t reach the title game at Minnesota Duluth’s Romano Gym, in 2009. And while Esko is widely expected to return on March 10, this section comes equipped with more intrigue this time around thanks to upset-minded upstarts.

That’s because perennial afterthoughts like Duluth Marshall, Proctor and Two Harbors have entered the discussion by playing some of their best basketball in recent memory.

For so long - perhaps since its lone state tournament trip, in 2000 - Marshall’s postseason has ended the same day it started.

These Hilltoppers, though, could stick around. They were rewarded for a breakthrough 21-5 regular season with one of the bracket’s two No. 1 seeds.


Esko is the other No. 1. Some things never change.

“There’s no question that Esko and (defending champ) Pequot Lakes are still the favorites,” Marshall coach Adam Johnson said.

But there isn’t the same sense of inevitability. Other teams, some of them unaccustomed to playoff contention, are capable of making a run.

“And I feel like we’re one of those teams,” Johnson said.

The same could be said for Proctor, which is almost as surprising. The Rails (14-12) are enjoying their first winning season since 2005-06, the product of a 10-game winning streak that coincided with a remarkably young roster “working out the kinks,” according to first-year coach Sarah Myhre.

Talk about a turnaround: Proctor was 3-10 in the first half, 11-2 in the second.

A team that starts four freshmen - Sam Pogatchnik, Morgan Nylund, Katelyn Marunich and Sam Parendo - shouldn’t be having this kind of success. Maybe the Rails are just too young to care.

“I’ve never seen anything like what these kids have accomplished at such a young age,” Myhre said. “I think it’s just a small portion of what they’re capable of; I think they’re capable of so much more.”


In its second-half surge, No. 4 Proctor beat the three teams seeded higher in its subsection - Marshall, No. 2 International Falls and third-seeded Two Harbors. Along the way, the Rails started having fun. Parendo produced a pair of game-winning buzzer-beaters, Pogatchnik began scoring in droves, and Proctor realized it had something brewing.

“They haven’t had a winning season in 11 years, so I think no one expected much out of them,” said Myhre, whose squad opens at home tonight against Eveleth-Gilbert.

Earlier this month, Myhre’s dad and assistant, ex-Barnum coach Randy Myhre, raved about the Rails’ 61-51 win at International Falls. That was a benchmark victory considering the Broncos annually rank among the Northland’s best. Proctor celebrated accordingly on the bus ride home.

“Those kids sang for three hours,” Randy Myhre said.

He wasn’t complaining.

The Rails’ youth bodes well for the future, as it does at Marshall. Johnson’s starting lineup often features eighth-grader Gianna Kneepkens, freshman Grace Kirk and sophomore Maggie Landherr. The youngsters are complemented by seniors like Rachel DeWitte, a 1,000-point scorer, and Lauren Bonin.

Those veterans are relishing this ride. They’ve already experienced the death of the program’s massive Lake Superior Conference losing streak, which reached 88 games and almost 12 years before the Hilltoppers slipped past Proctor 55-46 in mid-December.

Even as Marshall’s young talent indicates this isn’t a one-year outlier, Johnson isn’t getting too far ahead. He wants to win now, for himself and for his veterans, who have endured so much losing.


“Our seniors don’t have next year, so we want to strike while the iron is hot,” Johnson said.

At Two Harbors, coach Chris Lemke can relate. His daughter, senior Ayla Lemke, has keyed the Agates’ resurgence by averaging 24.5 points and 11.2 rebounds.

The Concordia-St. Paul commit almost didn’t have the chance to lead Two Harbors into the playoffs. After missing all of 2015-16 with a torn medial meniscus in her right knee, Lemke appeared to suffer a similar injury this January. It wasn’t nearly as severe, however. She had 30 percent of the medial meniscus removed on Jan. 6 and was back on the court less than two weeks later.

The Agates (19-7) host Virginia tonight. They have defeated the Blue Devils twice since Feb. 18. A third time would give the Agates their first postseason win since 2011.

In the other subsection, Pequot Lakes is seeded second behind Esko. The teams met in last year’s final, which the Patriots claimed 62-58 to thwart the Eskomos’ bid for a third consecutive state berth.

Esko is 11-0 against section opponents this season, including a 54-46 victory at Pequot Lakes on Jan. 19. In other words, everyone is chasing the Eskomos.


“They play hard every possession,” Ayla Lemke said of Esko. “They don’t take any possessions off. That’s what we need to do.”



There isn’t nearly as much ambiguity in Section 7A.

Six-time defending section champ Mountain Iron-Buhl (25-1), ranked atop Class A most of the winter, is the team to beat. And that’s easier said than done - the Rangers’ lone loss came against Class AA No. 1 and undefeated Roseau.

Few small-school teams can match MIB’s depth. Senior Chelsea Mason, averaging 21.8 points and 6.7 steals, is close to becoming the 19th girl in state history to record 3,000 points. Senior Mya Buffetta is over 2,000 career points and junior Mary Burke is well over 1,000.

Sophomore Allie Negen (10.1) gives the Rangers four players averaging double figures in scoring.

MIB and Floodwood, last year’s finalists, are the No. 1 seeds in 7A.

  • In Section 5A, Cromwell-Wright (21-4) is a No. 1 seed. The Cardinals’ four losses were against MIB twice, Roseau and St. Paul Como Park, a Class AAA state tournament entrant a year ago.

Cromwell-Wright, looking for its second 5A title in as many years, boasts three players with at least 1,000 points.

  • In Section 7AAA, top-seeded Grand Rapids (21-5) and No. 2 Hermantown (22-3) appear to be on a collision course. The Thunderhawks haven’t dropped a section game, while the Hawks are 10-2 - Grand Rapids is responsible for both defeats.

Led by high-scoring junior Heaven Hamling, the Thunderhawks are seeking a return trip to state after advancing in 2016.


  • Duluth East (2-24) is the eighth seed in Section 7AAAA and travels to No. 1 Andover on Thursday.

News Tribune girls basketball final rankings


(Enrollment over 400)

  1. Grand Rapids 21-5
  2. Hermantown 22-3
  3. Northwestern 17-7
  4. Hibbing 13-13


(Enrollment under 400)

  1. Mtn. Iron-Buhl 25-1
  2. Cromwell-Wright 21-4
  3. Esko 20-6
  4. 4. Duluth Marshall 21-5
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