EAST GRAND FORKS — This was their gym.
Oh, sure, East Grand Forks was the home team and the gym was at their high school. For about two hours Tuesday night, the Crookston girls’ basketball team waved that totally aside.
The Pirates stomped all over the Green Wave, winning 55-21 to improve to 5-0. They dominated wire to wire, forcing more turnovers than they allowed points. They played with as much energy in the final minute as they did in the first.
And after the final minute ended and the horn sounded, a contingent of Crookston students, just as they do after every home game, lined up just off the court. As loud as they had been all night, they formed a screaming human tunnel to greet the Pirates as they ran triumphantly off the court.
Want to make a statement that you’re here for real? That you can beat up on not only cupcakes, but the best teams in your section? That your first win against your biggest, closest rival in four years wasn’t a fluke?
This is how you do it.
“We executed well and we held a really good team down defensively,” said Crookston head coach Darin Zimmerman. “When you do those things, the scoreboard will probably take care of itself.”
Crookston’s run to the Section 8AA championship game last March, which included a 47-35 semifinal win over East Grand Forks, was still fresh enough, as of Tuesday, to cast some shadow of doubt over the Pirates’ staying power. After all, it was only their first win over the Green Wave in four years. The Pirates entered the section tournament as just the 10th seed out of 16 teams. Their late-season surge could have been the latest development in a four-year rebuilding project under Zimmerman. It could have been a lucky team getting hot at a lucky time.
Crookston came into Tuesday night at 4-0, outscoring its opponents (three Class A schools and hapless Warroad) 69-34 on average. It did everything it could do to prove its worth. But East Grand Forks presented a much different opportunity.
“Leading into today we had an excellent practice,” Zimmerman said. “Kids were focused and they worked really hard. The biggest thing is, they understood the moment but they weren't overwhelmed by it either. They just knew that it's a game, they had an opportunity to go play it.”
And play it they did. The Pirates didn’t merely outlast the Green Wave like they did in March, they stepped on their throats and didn’t let them come up for air. No Green Wave shot in the first six minutes so much as hit the rim, and you could count on one hand their open looks for the night.
The same scene played on a 36-minute loop: Crookston defenders with their arms outstretched horizontally, waving around like five pairs of wings, flustering East Grand Forks into turnovers and preventing them from even seeing the basket. On the other end, Gretchen Theis, Hayden Winjum and Emma Borowicz running free to the basket off a steal, laying in basket after basket.
“(Our message was) just to not give them an inch, not give them anything,” Theis said. “Make them work for everything.”
This was soundtracked by the Pirates’ supporters, which packed in in almost equal numbers as the home fans and certainly made more noise. This included the visiting Crookston student section, which stood right behind the East Grand Forks bench and did its part to take the air out of the building.
“It's just a little extra boost that you get when the crowd's bigger and it's in the game,” Zimmerman said. “In an important section and rivalry game like tonight, to have our stands full on our side, it shows the girls that their hard work's not going unnoticed. They feed off that energy.”
To be clear: the Pirates didn’t desperately need to make a statement against East Grand Forks. They’ve won 12 of their last 13 games dating back to last season. They’ve improved every year under Zimmerman, to the point where one loss to a quality team on the road wouldn’t make so much as a dent in that progress.
“(Winning) definitely means that we can do what we always thought we could do,” Theis said. “We just need to come in with every game knowing that we can do that.”
This is a team in the zone, playing with a lethal combination of confidence and skill. They know how good they are and how far they’ve come. One game can’t take that self-image away.
One game can, though, send a message to anyone that isn’t Crookston; anyone who has yet to see for themselves that the Pirates aren’t going anywhere after last spring.
“It just takes us another step forward,” Zimmerman said. “(East Grand Forks) is a good team and they're a good program, and they've had a lot of success over the last few years and it's well-deserved, because they've worked for it. But our kids have put a lot of time in and understand that the past is the past. We've had good games, but we have an opportunity in front of us and we just gotta meet it head on.”
The opportunity in front of the Pirates on Tuesday doesn’t come around all the time. They took it and ran.
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