HAWLEY — Darin Zimmerman isn’t one to make excuses. Few coaches are.

But that doesn’t mean that the Crookston girls’ basketball coach won’t at least acknowledge what is plain as day: his team isn’t at full strength.

With the absences of junior guard Emma Borowicz (knee injury) for the last four games, and senior guard Gretchen Theis (illness) for the last six, the Pirates were without their first and third leading scorers, and two-fifths of their starting lineup. In turn, Crookston’s rotation shrunk and was stretched thin. Fewer players playing more minutes, and some in roles unfamiliar to them.

And as much as the Pirates have embodied a “next girl up” mentality over the last two weeks, it’s just that: a mentality.

Crookston lost to Hawley, 62-46, on Tuesday night: its third loss to one of Section 8AA’s best teams in the last two weeks. And just like the first two — 61-60 against Roseau on Jan. 28 and 32-27 to Pelican Rapids on Feb. 1 — it was a loss that, for as well as the Pirates played, you left with a sense of what if?

By no means does this sell the rest of the Pirates short. Crookston trailed most of the game on Tuesday, but it had an answer for everything, whittling multiple large Nugget leads to one possession. Halle Winjum (8, G) dipped and darted into the lane, finishing strong and knocking down outside shots with no hesitation. Dani Boyle (Sr., G) was similarly aggressive, accounting for a key second-half run almost entirely by herself.

But in the second half, as the Nuggets turned a two-point game into a double-digit lead, you could see it unfold. Crookston’s shots stopped falling, it started resorting to fouling — quite simply, the Pirates seemed to run out of gas.

Down the stretch, is it fair to wonder if Borowicz or Theis could have gone and gotten the buckets Crookston so sorely needed; provided that much of a spark or toughness inside where Hawley had so much success all night long?

The answer is obvious. But also just as obvious: the Pirates were right there with a 16-5 team — one that had beaten them on Dec. 27, when they were at full strength — and at the end of the night, sat only a few plays, rather than a few oceans, from a statement victory.

Boyle thought Crookston boxed out better and was harder in transition the second time around, two areas in which Hawley hurt the Pirates in December. Zimmerman thought their overall effort was stronger.

“We certainly played good enough defense to win,” Zimmerman said. “ … We just had to make plays and we were in positions to make them. Give Hawley some credit for stopping them, we just gotta be a little bit more efficient.”

In this regard, there are no excuses.

That, though, is a testament to what Crookston has done over the last two weeks. It had every right to accept itself as a depleted group stumbling through the rugged middle of the season, wave off any suboptimal result and simply say, “we’ll get them when it counts.” (Zimmerman does expect Theis to return to action by the end of the week, while he described Borowicz’s situation as more day-to-day, without a firm timetable.)

Instead, the Pirates rose to the challenge as one. Full health or not, they expected to grit their teeth and compete, and win against the best teams in the section. They did everything except the latter.

“It just shows our girls how good of a team we are, how good players that we have,” Zimmerman said. “Everybody has really stepped up and taken on more responsibility, and (no one’s) shied away from that.”

As a purely strategic concept, “next girl up” isn’t fair when trying to replacing players as good as Borowicz and Theis. But as a mentality, it’s just what Crookston has needed — and gotten.

And if the Pirates hold onto it when they return to full health ... well, who knows what this team could be capable of?

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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