Section 7A/5A boys basketball preview: Brotherly love leads Cards
PROCTOR — While still getting over pneumonia last week, Marcus Pocernich pounded the basketball down with his left hand, sliced through several would-be defenders and softly touched a layup off the backboard for a hoop.
Instantly, the Cromwell-Wright senior sighted his younger brother, Micah, a junior, as the two shared a quick high-five while running back down the court.
"He's been the best teammate I've ever had," said Marcus, his face flushed following scrimmages in Proctor on Saturday, Nov. 24. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."
Yet, there are more Pocernichs than just the pair of 6-foot-2 guards. Their father, Bill, is in his 23rd season as the Cardinals' coach. His wife, Marcia, has helped coach in the youth program over time, while she doesn't hesitate to lend a hand with the scorebook. Their freshman daughter, Andrea, also plays the family sport.
With Bill, 46, also being an English teacher at the small school, becoming gym rats didn't take long.
"It's been something we've grown up around," Micah said. "We been around it our whole lives."
And it certainly doesn't take long to tell.
Similarly, the pair have a natural knack for putting the ball in the basket, where Micah manages best with his smooth shot and Marcus his penetrating drives. Making matters worse for opposing defenses, 165-pound Marcus is left-handed and Micah, at 160 pounds, goes right.
Mix in the fact that the two scoring sensations are a part of a Cromwell-Wright team that returns a majority of its starting cast from a team that went 23-7 last year en route to the Section 5A final, and the Cardinals are flying as high as ever.
In fact, along with the Pocernich brothers, seniors Cameron Cahoon, Isaac Shelton and Jaden Gronner all have double-digit scoring capabilities. Don't forget classmate Drew Libbon either, who was still on his red-padded crutches after the quarterback suffered a dislocated hip and fractured pelvis earlier this month.
All four were a part of the Cardinals' state semifinalist football team this fall, just finishing two weeks ago. The Pocernichs too, were a part of the school's cross country team.
"Playing multiple sports is what Cromwell is," Marcus said. "We have a great group of guys."
"It's a fun group to coach," added Bill, noting his top five scorers are back, perhaps even six if Libbon returns. "They're going to compete and play hard every night."
That's not surprising of Cromwell-Wright, which lost 72-40 to Hinckley-Finlayson in last March's final, just one step short of the state tournament.
Now, opening the season Tuesday, Dec. 4, against rival Barnum at home, the Cardinals are looking to take things even further.
"We're talented enough," Bill said, as he headed for the team bus. "Like I told them after Hinckley, there's only one more thing to do, and that's to take the next step. That's the goal."
And not only for the Pocernichs, but the entire crew, many of whom have grown up around them.
"Anytime you can share your passion, it's special," Bill said. "It's a deep relationship that I have with all of them."
Other area schools
The Bulldogs come back under Jeswa Harris again, now in his fourth season at Carlton's helm. Harris' older brother, Joaquim, is also the head coach at nearby South Ridge.
For Carlton, a team that finished 15-13 last winter, the Santkuyl brothers — senior Jake and junior Matt — are back. The productive pair will mesh with another sibling tandem, Scott and Spencer Rousseau, a senior and sophomore, respectively.
"We're looking forward to seeing the little brothers and big brothers play with each other," said Harris, whose Bulldogs begin their season Tuesday, Dec. 4, at East Central. "We're going to be small, but we're going to be fast."
And perhaps much bigger come January, as junior Ben Soderstrom could be cleared to return after the 6-foot-4, 270-pound center fractured his leg during football.
"We're going to hold our breath," Harris said.
Fond du Lac Ojibwe
The Ogichidaag have their own big-man, as the 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman Connor Barney will be a pleasant addition, recently transferring from Cass Lake-Bena.
That pleases Earl Otis, as the coach now entering his seventh year with the Ogichidaag also welcomes back several starters: seniors Avery Misquadqce and Jason Fineday, junior Jalen Paulson and eighth-grader Jordan Brown. The team went 8-15 last season.
As always, FDL, which starts their season Friday, Nov. 30, at Mountain Iron-Buhl, will play fast-paced and uptempo. Otis notes they may even be able to return to the state tournament after trips there in 2014 and 2015.
"I really think we can make a run if we stick with playing team ball — I really do," Otis said. "We always have enough shooters. Our defense will need to pick up."
Speaking of defense, Panthers will get the stiffest test of all when they head up to North Woods for their season-opener Thursday, Nov. 29.
The Grizzlies have played in the past two Class A state championship games, having now won 62 of their previous 66 games since 2016.
"We're going to make them work for every point," said Panthers coach Joaquim Harris, in his second season.
The Panthers produced a 9-17 mark last year, but hope to improve despite graduating do-it-all Nick Carlson, a 1,000-point scorer. Thus, an incredible 22 players are still back for Harris, including seniors Joe Janke, Tristin Paulson and Jayton Nelson and juniors Kayden Palmi and Nick Larson.
"We can interchange whenever we want," Harris said. "Big, small, half-court, full-court — it's exciting to have team that can give so many different looks."
The Wrens looking good again, as the team returns three starters from a squad that finished 25-3 a year ago before being eliminated by Ely in the 7A semifinals.
In fact, seniors Eli Krisak and Jared Kelley and junior Randy Wimmer are back. The team completed its regular-season unbeaten at home for coach Jon Bartczak, now entering his fourth year.
"The expectations are still high," Bartczak said. "You could tell there was an energy in the gym right away on the first day."
Bartczak won't need to use much energy before their opener, as the Wrens travel to rival Carlton on Dec. 7. The two will also play for the Brown Jug on Jan. 15 in Wrenshall.
"They are one of the few schools you circle," Bartczak said. "The towns are right next to each other. Both want to win and have all of those bragging rights."