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John’s Journal: Trip To State Is A Cherry On Top

Hayfield, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa Will Meet For 1A Title

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2022 - 5:54 PM


Minneapolis North seniors Demeiko Anderson, Jacob Butler and Rio Sanders answer questions alongside Polars coach Larry McKenzie after winning in the Class 2A state semifinals.


First-year New Life Academy coach Robbie Whitney.

From the start of the 2016-17 season through the end of the 2018-19 season, the Cherry boys basketball team was not making headlines. The Tigers had an overall record of 4-69 over those three seasons.

They went 16-12 in 2019-20, the first year under head coach Jordan Christianson, then 12-7 in the Covid-shortened 2020-21 season. This season has been special, with the Tigers reaching the state tournament for the first time in 25 years.

They were defeated by the defending Class 1A state champions from Hayfield 72-61 in Friday’s semifinals at Williams Arena, but that did little to diminish the pride felt by the team and its Iron Range community. They will take a record of 27-5 into Saturday’s third-place game against New Life Academy.

“I’m very, very proud of our guys,” Christianson said. “Everyone in that locker room should be proud of what they have accomplished this year. We're always too small, always too young. And these guys just scrapped all year.”

The Tigers are exceedingly young and exceptionally talented. Sophomore Isaac Asuma has been a breakout star of the state tournament, scoring 31 points in a 68-57 quarterfinal win over Nevis and 36 against Hayfield.  

“We knew he was going to get his points,” said Hayfield coach Chris Pack. “Our goal was to keep him between 15 to 25 and that obviously didn't work.”

A turnaround like what Cherry has done goes beyond talented athletes. Christianson said the Tigers’ sudden rise has a lot to do with commitment. He was sitting next to Asuma and senior Sam Serna as he spoke after the game.

“The formula is these guys bought in,” he said. “I didn't give them any magic potion or anything like that. These guys really took it upon themselves, especially these two right here. They came to everything in the summer, everything we had in the fall, everything we had in the mornings. They put in the work. That's what these guys did.”

Having the experience of winning the state title last year is a key component for Hayfield, which will meet Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in Saturday’s 11 a.m. championship game.

“It's so valuable to have these guys who were in it last year,” Pack said. “Cherry’s young and they’ll probably be back. The experience you get in a situation like this, even though it was at Target Center last year, just the environment and the big game. There's no substitute for it.”

The 2022 tournament is much different than the 2021 version, which was held with limited crowds due to the pandemic.

“Coming off last season, where minimum fans were allowed to come, having a huge crowd like Hayfield always has, it's just great to have,” said Vikings senior Easton Fritcher. “It makes you play better. You score a bucket and all of a sudden you can't hear anything. There's no better feeling than hearing the Viking roar. I know it's going to be even bigger at the next game.”

Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa Edges New Life

Sophomore Luke Dingmann of Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa made two free throws with 15 seconds to play, putting the Jaguars ahead of New Life Academy 55-53 on Friday. B-B-E’s defense didn’t allow New Life to get a shot off before time expired, moving the Jaguars to the championship game.

“It was everything that a kid would dream of,” said B-B-E coach Chris Anderson. “You want to be in a state tournament. It's a dream come true. You want to go to the free throw line. Dream come true. And you want to knock ‘em down. That’s a dream come true. These young men lived a dream, and it feels like it. It’s like a blur for me.”

First-year New Life coach Robbie Whitney was playing college basketball at Bethel University two seasons ago and was an assistant at St. Francis High School, his alma mater, last season. To have his team take a 28-4 record into the third-place game is quite an accomplishment. The Eagles had not been to state since 2004

“I’m just super grateful for the opportunity to play in a game like that,” he said. “That's what you live for. Obviously you want to come out on top but those are the games that you'll remember forever, in an arena like this, with a team like this, coming down to a one-possession game. I couldn't ask for anything more than that.

“They were two really good teams, we both made our runs and they just happened to make one more play. So I'm just super grateful and super lucky to be able to coach guys like this.”

Minneapolis North Holds Off Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta

In the first of Friday night’s Class 2A semifinals, Minneapolis North held off Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta 71-63, overcoming a dominant performance by 6-foot-8 Tigers center Jackson Loge. He had 37 points, 14 rebounds and he blocked eight shots. North was led by Demeiko Anderson with 19 points, and Jacob Butler had 14 points and 18 rebounds.

Loge is also a talented student, ranking first in his class of 92 seniors. He said he and his teammates have had extra motivation ever since 35-year coach Mark Torgerson – who also coached Jackson’s dad -- announced that he would retire after this season.

“It's been great playing for him and he's a great coach,” said Loge. “And I've learned a lot from him.”

This is the fourth time Torgerson has led a team to state; the best finish was second place in 1994 and the Tigers also advanced to state in 2004 and 2021. He will take a career record of 592-310 into Saturday’s third-place game.

Minneapolis North coach Larry McKenzie has led six teams to state titles (four at Minneapolis Patrick Henry and two at North). The only coaches with more boys basketball state titles are Dave Thorson of DeLaSalle with nine and Ken Novak of Hopkins with eight.

“I think the level of trust we have for Coach McKenzie is really, really high,” said North senior Rio Sanders, who had 11 points. “He's been here before, he's won a lot of state titles. He knows what he's talking about. And we just try to soak everything in as much as possible.”

Every year for 24 years, McKenzie’s teams have gone on a preseason retreat for a weekend. He said among the questions Butler asked during this season’s retreat was an important one.

“He said, ‘Coach, what do we have to do to be a championship team?’ And that's been a constant question that he's asked. And these guys (Butler, Sanders and Anderson, all seniors), in every practice they’ve held the team accountable in terms of doing what it takes. And Jacob reminds them; he'll remind them often, like, ‘We’ve got to pick it up, we’ve got to do this because coach says this is what a championship team does.’ ”

--In the final game of the day, Annandale defeated Caledonia 62-55. The Cardinals will meet Minneapolis North in Saturday’s 1 p.m. Class 2A championship game. Caledonia and Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta will play for third place at noon at Concordia University in St. Paul.

--Cherry didn’t have a band at Friday’s game because their band was on a trip to Florida. The Hayfield baseball team is leaving for Florida early Sunday morning, and nine Vikings basketball players are also on the baseball team.

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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Class AA Boys Basketball State Semifinal Minneapolis North Community 71, Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta 63