Prep boys basketball: Hermantown, Esko ready to move past disappointing ends to 2021-22 season

The Hawks and Eskomos both return looking to earn a spot in the state tournament this season.

Hermantown’s Keaton Christianson looks to pass the ball past Totino-Grace defender Zy’ierre Stewart during their state tournament quarterfinal game on March 22.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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HERMANTOWN — By any stretch of the imagination, Hermantown and Esko were among the most successful teams in the region.

The Hawks edged Hibbing in a memorable Section 7AAA final , but were overmatched in their 83-50 quarterfinal loss to eventual state champion Totino-Grace .

Esko looked like an absolute juggernaut during the regular season, but failed to make the state tournament after stumbling to a 58-50 loss to Pequot Lakes in the Section 7AA final.

Both teams had disappointing ends to largely successful seasons and both are taking steps to ensure they make another run at the state tournament and find success if they get there.

Blake Schmitz (0) of Hermantown takes the ball to the hoop against Cloquet on Jan. 13 at the Hermantown Hawks Gymnasium.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

The Hawks graduated just one player off the section championship squad and return 70 of the 79 points they averaged as a team last season.


“We have a lot of the same guys back,” senior Keaton Christianson said. “We definitely plan to go deep into March, we want to try and go deeper than we did last year. We want to keep playing late into that week and hopefully get to that championship Saturday.”

Coach Andy Fenske knows that with all the returning players and a section championship already under their belts, the Hawks have “a target on their back” this season, but that’s not the biggest challenge.

“Our biggest challenge is finding enough minutes for everybody,” Fenske said. “This summer guys put in the work on the court, in the weight room and there’s just a noticeable difference. They’ve got that chip on their shoulder a little bit … It’s going to be a unique challenge trying to distribute 180 minutes between our guys to find ways to keep them all involved because we have five guys who can score, defend, rebound — who can do everything.”

To get ready for the intensity of the state tournament, Hermantown has home games scheduled against Princeton Jan. 28 and Benilde-St. Margaret’s Feb. 11.

The Hawks’ season kicks off against Cloquet at 7:15 p.m. Friday in Cloquet.

Eskomos ready to ‘go out with a bang’

Player takes a contested jump shot
Esko's Cuinn Berger takes a contested jump shot during the Section 7AA championship game against Pequot Lakes, Thursday, March 16, 2022, in the Romano Gym at UMD.
Jake Przytarski / File / Cloquet Pine Journal

Esko rode a nine-game win streak into the Section 7AA championship game, but Pequot Lakes frustrated the Eskomos’ fast-paced offense.

The team doesn’t want to forget what happened, but they’ve been working to make sure it doesn’t occur again.

“We all know what happened last year, none of us want to repeat that again,” senior Cuinn Berger said. “Our practices are much more intense — there’s a lot more running — and we’re going to go out with a bang.”


The Eskomos return their top three scorers from last year in Berger, Makoi Perich and Dalton Spindler. Coach Derek Anderson said the team will play a similar game with the athletes they have returning. Carter Zezulka, Sam Haugen and Braedyn Male will be among those competing for the remaining two starting positions.

Esko's Makoi Perich reaches up to dunk the basketball in the second half of the Section 7AA boys basketball semifinal against Crosby-Ironton at Romano Gym in March in Duluth.
Brandon Veale / File / Duluth News Tribune

“We’re going to try to get up and down,” Anderson said. “We’d like to get the ball moving on offense and we like to get up and go in transition. We should have enough guys to be able to create pressure on defense and hopefully that can lead to some transition offense.”

Defensive pressure can force teams to make passes quicker, which can lead to mistakes and easy buckets on the offensive end.

“The key is high intensity and make them move the ball fast,” Berger said. “You can do this by setting early pressure, lots of press, send the occasional double team and the occasional aggressive trap zone.”

Anderson said the team remembers the sting of the early exit last season and they want to get back to the state tournament.

“Our goal is to make it to state and we fell short last year,” Anderson said. We talked about the letdown we had in the section championship game. I think everybody’s well aware that we want to get back there and it’s a goal that we should hopefully be able to achieve if we work hard enough and compete as a team.”

Esko opens its season against Rock Ridge at 7:15 p.m. Friday in Eveleth.

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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