In the front row

by Tom Coombe

Last Friday night, the Tower-Soudan Golden Eagles were back in familiar territory: playing for a section championship.<BR><BR>A pair of gutsy wins in the Section 7A high school girls basketball playoffs returned a talented group of Golden Eagles to the same spot they were during the fall, when they swept their way to the section volleyball crown and a trip to the state tournament.<BR><BR>They also played for a section title in the 2003-2004 school year, falling short in the volleyball finals against Cook.<BR><BR>Previous success and the experience of playing in big games served the Golden Eagles well in both a come-from-behind quarterfinal win over Littlefork-Big Falls and in Tuesday night’s 55-46 victory over Barnum.<BR><BR>In both games, the Golden Eagles were matched up against teams that relied heavily on young players participating for the first time in crucial tournament games.<BR><BR>For Tower-Soudan, it was old hat.<BR><BR>In the second half, when tournament games are decided and championships are won, an experienced Golden Eagles squad was at its best.<BR><BR>Guard Whitney Johnson played like a tournament MVP down the stretch in both contests, sinking free throw after free throw to clinch the quarterfinal game and playing keep away from Barnum defenders three nights later.<BR><BR>Johnson, Tower-Soudan’s all-time leading scorer, scored 29 points in the quarterfinals and though she was held to just 12 by Barnum, the scorebook didn’t tell the whole story. She found open teammates, anchored the top of the T-S defense and took care of the ball the bulk of the time.<BR><BR>Fellow senior Alex Tomsich also put up more than 1,000 points in her career and sparked T-S to a first-half lead against the Bombers.<BR><BR>Inside, the Golden Eagles have a top-flight center in 6-0 junior Katie Jamnick and two unheralded players in twin seniors Kelly Zavodnik and Katie Zavodnik. Sophomore Pam Frazee played the role of a “super sub” in the playoffs, providing key minutes in the quarterfinals and scoring eight fourth quarter points to help turn back Barnum.<BR><BR>The Golden Eagles played like section favorites for much of the season but hit a late-season bump in the road with losses against Mt. Iron-Buhl and Littlefork-Big Falls. That cost them a top seed, but they avenged the loss to L-BF and watched from the stands Tuesday as Cromwell eliminated the Rangers.<BR><BR>That set the stage for Friday’s final (completed after the Echo’s deadline), when it could be argued that Tower-Soudan was a decided underdog.<BR><BR>Underdog or not, and whether they earn another trip to state or ‘settle’ for a runner-up trophy, the Golden Eagles showed again that all of their success in the last year-and-a-half was no fluke.<BR><BR>• Since Minnesota abandoned the old two-class system and went to four enrollment divisions in boys and girls basketball, area teams have had more than their share of success.<BR><BR>Tower-Soudan’s appearance in Friday night’s 7A girls final marked the sixth time in eight years either an Ely, Babbitt-Embarrass or Tower-Soudan team played for the right to go to the state tournament.<BR><BR>The Babbitt-Embarrass boys fell short in both the 1998 and 2004 7A title tilts, while Ely lost to Mt. Iron-Buhl in 2000 but followed up a year later with a win over Bigfork.<BR><BR>Last winter, Tower-Soudan’s boys basketball team was upset by Nashwauk-Keewatin for the 7A championship.<BR><BR>• The four-class system also has its share of drawbacks, not the least of which is a playoff format not conducive to the casual fan.<BR><BR>It wasn’t that long ago that Ely could be counted on to have a following in the hundreds when it played its first boys basketball playoff game. Only the most diehard Wolves fans made the two-hour, midweek trek to Duluth to watch Ely take on Duluth Marshall in last week’s 7AA tournament opener.<BR><BR>• Those who watched Cromwell play here during the Ely Holiday Tournament weren’t surprised to see the Cardinals make a strong postseason run.<BR><BR>Cromwell finished third in the state in Class A last winter and returned several key players, including guard Kylee Smith, who is attracting some NCAA Division I attention.<BR><BR>• Coaches and scouts from as many as 60 four-year schools took in part of the state community college men‘s basketball tournament, and there’s no doubt that Vermilion sophomores Aaron Overby and Jameel Koonce turned some heads.<BR><BR>The all-state players, both Cleveland natives, will continue their college careers next winter.<BR><BR>“They’re getting looked at by schools from all over the country,” said Vermilion Head Coach Paul McDonald. “They definitely impressed a lot of people. We’ll wait and see what shakes out.”<BR><BR>• Among the former Ironmen competing at four-year schools this year are Lamar Moore (Florida Atlantic), Jamal Joseph (Southern University, New Orleans) and Travis Gardner (Northwest Missouri State).<BR><BR>• Lance Horvat was one of the coaches for the Minnesota High School Girls Hockey Senior Classic, an all-star series held Feb. 25-27 in the Twin Cities.<BR><BR>The Ely native is the head coach at Moose Lake-Willow River, and he helped lead the team he coached to the all-star championship. The series included 68 of Minnesota’s best high school girls hockey players. They were divided into four teams.<BR><BR>• The bean counters at the Minnesota State High School League had to be happy that Virginia qualified for the Class A state hockey tournament. The school sold out of its first allotment of tourney tickets and the MSHSL had to send another batch to the Queen City.<BR><BR>The small-school event usually plays to far less than capacity crowds in St. Paul - as opposed to the sold-out in advance Class AA tournament.<BR><BR>Virginia’s entry, the community’s first in the state hockey event, was great for the gate.