COOK — The North Woods boys’ basketball team was just hours away from playing in the Section 7A title game for the fourth straight year last March — until COVID-19 canceled the game and their chance at a fourth straight state tournament.
With that in the back of their minds, the Grizzlies are taking one day at a time this season, head coach Will Kleppe said.
Such adjustments due to the coronavirus pandemic have “become the new normal.’’ His players “are kind of accepting it that it is what it is.’’
Kleppe said the focus for North Woods is to play every game to the best of their ability.
“Us coaches have really conditioned ourselves to not make promises that can’t be delivered on’’ — such as the opportunity to play in the postseason, which is never a guarantee in these pandemic times.
“The focus is let’s hope we get to this first game. Then we’ll see what’s coming up for the next one.’’
The Grizzlies lost Levi Byram, Brian Whiteman Jr. and Trevor Morrison to graduation last spring. Kleppe said Morrison was the team leader and a 1,000-point scorer.
North Woods went 23-6 last year “with a pretty thin lineup,’’ according to the coach, who expects his deeper bench to pay dividends this season due to mask-wearing rules.
For 2021, he has 10 guys he can rotate in. The varsity lineup includes only one senior in Darius Goggleye; juniors TJ Chiabotti, Davis Kleppe, Alex Hartway, Erik Aune, Jake Panichi, Sean Morrison and Bryce Chosa, who is currently out with an injury; sophomores Brenden Chiabotti and Jared Chiabotti; and freshman Jonah Burnett.
Overall, Kleppe feels good about his team even though it feels like his squad is young every year. In addition to Goggleye and the juniors, the Grizzlies will also have sophomores and freshmen on the floor a lot. However, they have a lot of big game experience and they know what it takes to get there.
Goggleye, TJ Chiabotti, Jared Chiabotti, Brenden Chiabotti and Alex Hartway will take the floor for North Woods tonight when they play at Carlton. Goggleye will play in the forward spot, while the four others are all guards.
Kleppe likes what he sees with their speed, quickness and ball handling, which has improved a lot since March. “I think we have some very good defenders on the floor there.’’
The Grizzlies coach is reluctant to talk about long-term goals due to the pandemic. However, if the team gets in its full slate of 18 games, Kleppe thinks his players will be motivated by last March’s unfinished business of no section title game. “We certainly have the kids this year that can get us there.’’
North Woods will get a chance to take on Nashwauk-Keewatin (their slated opponent for the 2020 title game) on the road March 2. The game will be a big one, he said, and “I’m sure Nashwauk is feeling the same way we are.’’
Looking at the favorites to win the section, Kleppe said his own team and N-K are at the top of the heap. Deer River is also looking tough, he said of the team that gave the Grizzlies their first Section 7A loss in two years last season.
The Grizzlies travel to Carlton tonight to open the season.