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Section 7AA boys basketball preview: Eskomos enter new era

From left, Esko boys basketball teammates Trevor Spindler, Camden Berger and Payton Wefel stand in front of first-year head coach Derek Anderson. Anderson takes over for Mike Devney, who had led the Eskomos the previous 19 seasons. Tyler Korby / Pine Journal

ESKO — With his father, Matt, being a driver education instructor, Camden Berger has learned all about green lights.

It's the Esko senior, however, who is learning a whole other meaning of "go" while on the basketball court.

Berger and his Eskomo teammates are going to be tough as always this winter, but under new head coach Derek Anderson — taking over for the longtime Mike Devney — there seems to be no slowing down in sight.

"He's got confidence in us," said Berger, sweating following scrimmages in Esko on Saturday, Nov. 24. "He's a player's coach."

Wearing faded jeans, a gray long-sleeved shirt and a necklace last week, the long-haired Anderson wasn't sweating at all about taking over for Devney, who with his 502 career wins is now leading Duluth Denfeld after 19 seasons with the Eskomos.

An assistant under Devney for five years prior, Anderson looked plenty calm in his first action as the head man, working the sidelines as Esko entered basket after basket against their opponents.

While Anderson said his players bring the energy, they were quick to rebuttal, noting it's the lengthy, 6-foot-5, 30-year-old who is providing a positive experience thus far. A former forward at St. Scholastica, Anderson, along with his three other assistants who also all played for the Saints, is pushing the pace at practice and incorporating some new drills to a program that has been a perennial state-tournament entrant under Devney.

"I learned a lot from Mike — he showed me the ropes," Anderson said. "From what he has done, people expect Esko to be at the top of the region. Esko's going to get everybody's best shot.

"Nothing but respect for Coach Devney," continued Anderson, whose Eskomos scrimmaged Devney's Hunters last week.

"They just smoked us," admitted Devney between games, adding that Anderson will "do just fine" in his inaugural season at the helm.

Speaking of shooting, not many do it better than the Eskomos. Last week, the boys in blue and gold seemed to be starting where they left off, a Class AA fifth-place finish at 28-5 that ended Devney's tenure on a victory.

And, with towering Adam Trapp now gone, one would think Esko would have a tough time adjusting without their 7-foot-3 mainstay in the paint.

"We're just playing faster," said junior Trevor Spindler. "I love playing like that."

No doubt, as Wefel, Spindler and Co. netted numerous shots from beyond the arc, some within transition outbreaks and others via facilitating drives by teammates, often the pass-first Berger.

"If you're open, it's a good shot," added Wefel with a smile. "We can score with anybody."

That was almost the case last March against St. Cloud Cathedral, yet it was the Crusaders who edged the Eskomos 64-60 in a triple-overtime state quarterfinal loss that still rests uneasy with players.

"It was a heartbreaker — almost everyday I think about it," said the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Berger. "We want to get there again, and win that first game."

"They're hungry and motivated to do it," Anderson said.

Esko opens their season hosting Hermantown on Thursday, Nov. 29.

Other area schools


The Bombers bring back a pair of starters, Tyler Nynas and Sam Goodwin — two of eight seniors playing for the longtime coach Rich Newman, now in his 21st season.

The Bombers were 7AA semifinalists a year ago, finishing 20-8, and have no thoughts of slowing down at the traditionally basketball-laden school.

"We've got pretty high expectations," Newman said. "I'm not good at those fancy plays, but if we can teach them how to get in front of somebody and box out, we'll be all right. We're going to rely on our defense."

Barnum hosts Cloquet in their season opener Friday, Nov. 30.

Moose Lake-Willow River

The Rebels will again be led by Wes Cummins, now in his third season since helping coach with Newman in the years prior.

Cummins, a 2005 Barnum graduate, said his Rebels will have plenty of depth as they look to improve on a 17-11 mark from a season ago, ending with a 7AA quarterfinal loss to Esko.

Senior Adam Dragicevich and sophomore Brady Watrin are back; both are 6-foot-4. The forward tandem will mix nicely with a group of eight underclassmen, many of whom Cummins said will see the court.

"There's going to be a handful of freshmen and sophomores on the floor," Cummins said. "It's just a matter of getting our young guys to play like old guys."

Moose Lake-Willow River open their season Thursday, Nov. 29, at East Central, then head south to juggernaut Rushford-Peterson on Saturday, Dec. 1.