No need for an introduction here — this is exactly what the headline says it is. Let’s get into it.
Well, come on. Don’t stand there looking surprised.
Crookston isn’t usually a fast-starting team. The Pirates were 0-6-1 in mid-December last year before winning six of their last 10 regular-season games. In 2016-17, they lost six of their first seven before going 5-1 down the stretch.
The question shouldn’t be if Crookston is in trouble. Rather, it’s if it can follow in the footsteps of the Pirates of yesteryear.
This should be where I tell you Crookston has played better than its record indicates. If the effect of that statement is that the Pirates should have beaten at least one of Mounds View, Sartell-St. Stephen, Little Falls and Warroad, I can’t go that far. But head coach Josh Hardy’s goal this season is to be competitive with the top teams in Section 8A, and at least for now, there are no signs that’s unachievable.
The Pirates’ opponents have a combined record of 9-3-1 this season. Games against the Mustangs and Sabres were competitive the entire 51 minutes, while Hardy thought the offensive production — projected to be a relative weakness — was surprising for this early on.
There’s talent on the roster. Joey Doda is an experienced point-producer, while Jack Doda looks like a future star, with three goals in four games. Ben Andringa (five points) has produced on whatever line he’s on — currently, that’s alongside Kaleb Thingelstad and Alex Longoria, who have created numerous opportunities so far and seem thisclose to getting going. Leyton Salentine has returned from injury to anchor the defense, and Noah Dragseth (37.8 saves per game, .899 save percentage) has flashed the potential to steal a game from anyone.
“I pulled our captains in and said ‘Hey, it's frustrating to start out 0-4, but you guys have all been down this road before with us,’ ” Hardy said Tuesday. “We take some time to learn our system, we're going to take some lumps here at the beginning of the year, but by January and February it's gonna be there.”
Even if it comes, Crookston has to play nearly error-free hockey to beat a Warroad, Thief River Falls or East Grand Forks. There’s no margin for error against those powerhouses. But if the Pirates get stellar goaltending from Dragseth, solid team defense and enough odd-man rushes with Andringa and the Doda brothers, they’ll have a chance.
Get three chances in a row in late February, and who knows?
Again, don’t act surprised. You lost to Warroad 10-0? Got outshot 56-3? That’s kind of what happens up there.
Before that, Crookston was showing signs. Not of being competitive with teams like the Warriors, mind you, but playing confident, assertive hockey against teams with relatively equal talent, such as a 3-1 win over Jamestown (N.D.) and a 2-1 overtime loss to West Fargo last week. In those games combined, the Pirates won the shots battle. For a team that’s averaged four wins over the last five seasons, being even that confident in your ability to win is a step in and of itself.
Head coach Tim Moe said before the season that Crookston’s strengths would be their youth and depth. That’s been the case indeed: five different Pirates have scored a goal and nine have scored a point.
The problem? Those nine players are all tied for the team lead.
That balance, still, should be vital going forward. Everyone’s getting in on the act and Grace Koshney’s play in goal has kept scorelines somewhat respectable. Put that together and there’s hope for the future, which might be even more important than any results this year.
As for results this year, the big key might be getting Catherine Tiedemann and Nora Peterson on track. Tiedemann and Peterson were one and two in points last season and by quite a wide margin. While depth is nice, the Pirates need at least some consistent producers. They have them — they just need to get going.
Begging the question of what would constitute progress for Crookston, Section 8A’s membership dropped to five after Park Rapids got rid of its program last season. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the Panthers were their only source of section wins as of late. Crookston isn’t going to compete with Warroad, Thief River Falls or East Grand Forks, but Detroit Lakes sits at just 0-7 and has been outscored 51-2 this season.
If the Pirates can beat the Lakers to finish fourth in the section, which they seem fully capable of, that might answer the question.
It’s only two games into the season, and while I’m the farthest thing from a veteran Crookston basketball observer, I have no idea what to think.
On Monday, the Pirates, who went just 8-19 last year, lost a wild game to Pelican Rapids, 84-82. Crookston scored at least 80 points just twice last year and averaged 61 points a game. It nearly got there in the second half alone, scoring 50. The offense looked potent inside and out, with Walker Winjum, Jack Garmen and Easton Tangquist hitting shots from outside and Caden Osborn dominating in the post.
Much like Hardy didn’t expect his team’s early offensive production, head coach Greg Garmen came away from Monday night pleasantly surprised.
“I didn't know if we would be able to really score this year, and I guess we're able to,” he said. “We had pretty good balanced scoring from our seven kids that played. Everybody seemed to get into the action a bit, so that's good to see they're playing with confidence that way.”
On Tuesday, however, Bagley — the only team to finish behind the Pirates in the section last year — went into Crookston and handily won, 77-60, as the Pirates’ shots stopped falling.
One of those games will prove to be an outlier, at least offensively. If Winjum, Garmen and Tangquist keep bombing away and Osborn remains the nightly double-double threat he was last year (he had 22 points and 14 rebounds against Bagley), the Pirates might surprise.
The defense is a legitimate concern, however. Crookston has consistently been unable to shut down dribble penetration and has struggled to close out on 3-point attempts. Inside, Osborn is a load, but he’s only one player, and if he gets in foul trouble like he did in the first half against Pelican Rapids, the result is an endless parade of opponents’ offensive rebounds and layups.
The Pirates might play their share of exciting contests, but they'll have to shore up their defense to improve substantially on last season's record.
If you were forced to put your money on one Crookston team having substantial success this year, you’d pick the girls’ basketball team and you wouldn’t hesitate.
The Pirates’ run to the Section 8AA Championship Game last spring was the talk of Crookston, and they’ve picked up right where they’ve left off, blowing out Sacred Heart and Win-E-Mac before winning a tight game at Red Lake Falls on Tuesday.
“They just wanna go out and compete and have fun and play,” said head coach Darin Zimmerman before the season. “Obviously, having some expectations could add some pressure, but it takes all of us, so with that being said I think they’ve done a nice job of just focusing on one day at a time, one practice at a time.”
Not only are the Pirates good — they’re just plain fun to watch. Crookston plays an active, high-pressure full-court press that speeds up the game and often makes opponents miserable just getting the ball across halfcourt.
On offense, Crookston shares the ball and moves it crisply from side-to-side, ensuring great balance. The Pirates’ six leading scorers — Emma Borowicz, Hayden Winjum, Gretchen Theis, Dani Boyle, Abby Borowicz and Halle Winjum — have scored 32, 31, 29, 27, 22 and 22 points, respectively. Crookston can score in a variety of ways — it averages six made 3-pointers per game, but can also get to the rim and play hard in transition.
On paper and on the court, the Pirates appear to have everything they need to have the same success they did last season. But to get any farther, they’ll have to dethrone powerhouse Roseau, which has won the last five Section 8AA titles.
If there’s one question to ask, it’s that Crookston’s three opponents so far all play a class below the Pirates, and recorded just a 37-39 record last season. Still, the Pirates have done everything they can in three games and haven’t shown a scratch in their armor as of yet.
The road will get far tougher sooner or later. For now, just enjoy the show.
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