The Grizzlies’ 86-83 come-from-behind overtime victory gave the Spartans motivation for the expected return engagement in the Section 7A final.
“We were really looking to avenge that loss in the section final,” Nashwauk-Keewatin coach Kyle Giorgi said of the game in which his team blew a four-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation.
Only a rematch didn’t happen.
On the morning of the 7A title game, the Minnesota State High School League pulled the plug on the rest of the winter season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That ended North Woods’ opportunity to earn a fourth consecutive trip to the Class A state tournament and, likewise, kept Nashwauk-Keewatin from winning its first section title since 2004.
Gaige Waldvogel (left) shoots layups as Jeff Lorenz works on ball handling skills during practice in Nashwauk last Tuesday. (Clint Austin / [email protected])
“It happened so quickly that there were definitely a lot of guys who were caught off guard by it,” Giorgi said. “It was hard for everybody but especially for our seniors, who went from taking it on the chin night in and night out to being part of a team that won 25 games.
“By losing out on that opportunity, it changes your perspective on things and makes you understand that you can’t take those moments for granted. They really want another shot at getting back to state.”
The Grizzlies, who went 23-6 and entered the season with 140 victories the past five years, were more business-like in their approach.
“We had to handle it as a matter of fact,” North Woods coach Will Kleppe said. “We were starting to get nervous as things came down to the wire that we would get shut down before the championship game. We were prepared for it, and then it was taken away the day of the game. We took it in stride … we realized it was out of our control.”
Jack Lorenz (left) takes the ball to the hoop near his brother Jeff Lorenz during practice in Nashwauk last Tuesday. (Clint Austin / [email protected])
The Grizzlies still have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders as they haven’t liked chatter from others that they shared the title last year.
“We’re big believers that if you don’t play that game, you aren’t champions,” Kleppe said. “When there’s talk of teams calling themselves champions or co-champions, we were under the assumption that you’re just a finalist. Unless you play that game, you won’t know what (the outcome is). We’re pretty motivated to play that game this year.”
Both teams return plenty of talent.
Despite losing top scorer Trevor Morrison (24.7 points per game), the Grizzlies have plenty of experience and Chiabottis. Junior forward T.J. Chiabotti (20.1 ppg, 2.5 steals per game) is joined by younger brother Brendan Chiabotti (9 ppg, 3.6 assists per game) and sophomore cousin Jared Chiabotti (12.6 ppg, 2.4 spg) for the run-and-gun Grizzlies, who averaged a Class A-high 87 points per game a year ago.
“They have good chemistry and have played a lot of ball together,” Kleppe said.
Jack Lorenz of the Nashwauk-Keewatin boys basketball team shoots the ball during practice in Nashwauk last Tuesday. (Clint Austin / [email protected])
In addition, senior center Darius Goggleye (14.3 ppg, 9.4 rebounds per game, 65.6% field goal shooting) returns and Davis Kleppe will play after sitting out with an injury the entire season.
Nashwauk-Keewatin brings back twins Jeff (16 ppg, 8 rpg) and Jack Lorenz (12 ppg, 8 rpg), a pair of 6-foot-5 seniors who were among the seven players who averaged eight points or more per game for the balanced team. Seniors Brent Keranen and 6-7 Keegen Warmuth and junior Gaige Waldvogel also were members of that club.
So would the Spartans want another crack at North Woods in a section final?
“We certainly wouldn’t be opposed to (playing North Woods),” Giorgi said. “It’s somewhat turned into a rivalry the past couple of years. We would have liked to think it was a rivalry before that but when you are getting killed by 40, I don’t know if you can call that a rivalry.”
Nashwauk-Keewatin head coach Kyle Giorgi (center) talks to his team during practice in Nashwauk last Tuesday. (Clint Austin / [email protected])
Deer River is among the teams hoping to prevent a North Woods vs. Nashwauk-Keewatin final.
The Warriors return four players who averaged in double figures for an 18-10 team that is seeking a debut state tournament appearance.
Mikhail Wakonabo, a silky smooth junior, was a stat-stuffer (19.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.9 spg) for a team that averaged more than 80 points a game and was in the top 10 in Minnesota history for successful 3-pointers, while junior point guard Ty Morrison (18.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.8 apg, 3.5 spg) is a triple-double waiting to happen. Toss in sophomore Sam Rahier (11.3 ppg), senior Blake Fox (10.8 ppg) and 6-6, 260-pound junior Tait Kongsjord and Deer River will be a tough out.
Ely is coming off a 23-6 season but needs to replace graduated Dylan Fenske (20 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Eric Omerza (15 ppg, 7.7 apg). Returning senior starters Brock Latourell, Will Davies and Emmett Faltesek combined to average 26 points per game for the height- and depth-challenged Timberwolves.
“We are very small and will not start a player over 6 foot,” coach Tom McDonald said. “Hopefully we can be competitive, but we don’t have a lot of depth so we will have to stay healthy.”
Conversely, Mountain Iron-Buhl is loaded with experience as longtime girls coach Jeff Buffetta begins his second season doubling up as boys coach. Sophomore Asher Zubich (30.7 ppg) was second in the Northland in scoring while sophomore Nikolas Jesch contributed 18.1 points an outing.
“We are excited to return 11 letterwinners from last year’s team,” Buffetta said. “Despite still having a young and relatively small team we expect to be much more competitive with the upper teams of our section. We still only have one senior, so we need to keep improving and maturing during the course of this short season.”
Cook County is young and very inexperienced under first-year coach Andy Feddema. Losing five seniors, including Pete Sutton (26.3 ppg, 1,346 career points), makes for a fresh start for the Vikings.
Lakeview Christian Academy returns all but one player from last season’s 2-21 team. Lance Puffer (24 ppg), who had seven games with more than 30 points and surpassed 1,000 points in his career, and Andrew Wright (10 ppg) are two of five returning seniors. Junior Matthew Wright (11 ppg) also returns. Recent alums Jacob Easty and Bennett Easty have filled assistant coaching positions for Joseph Gagner’s squad.
Wrenshall lost five seniors and is relying on seniors Mason Perry and Zeke Rousseau and a large freshman class to improve on a 4-21 record.
At Floodwood, where COVID-19 has taken a toll on an already small group of participants, the goal is to improve every day. The Polar Bears entered the season on a 16-game losing streak but return Errol Palmer, Braxton Farrell, Carter Stokke, Drake Laine, Aiden Williams and Travis Young in an effort to get better.
Cromwell-Wright’s graduation losses were heavy from a team that posted a 20-5 record last season.
Polar League MVP Micah Pocernich (25.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.9 apg, 3.6 spg) and Gage Zoeller (17.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg) are among the losses, with juniors Ethan Shelton (9.2 ppg) and Zevvus Smith the main returning contributors.
“We have several younger players ready to make the jump to the varsity level and, when combined with our two returning starters, we still expect to be very competitive in our conference and section,” coach Bill Pocernich said. “We will be inexperienced, and with an abbreviated season, slow starts to the season will have more of an impact on potential conference and section standings than usual. How quickly the players identify their roles at the varsity level will go a long way toward the success of this season’s team at the conference and section levels.”
Barnum (11-17) and McGregor (5-20) each had subpar seasons and seek to regroup. The Bombers’ lost Blaze Hurst (16.5 ppg) through graduation and will rely on Jake Hultgren, Joe Peterson, Reed Kornovich and Garret Coughlin this time around.