The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

As a rule, high school seniors remember with fondness their final sports competition, even if it’s a loss in section or state tournament play. For many of them, it’s the end of their athletic careers. No more weight rooms. No more film sessions. No more hanging out with pals discussing the good and bad points of their play.

However, seniors on the Highland Park boys’ basketball team are likely going to be an exception to that rule. The Scots ended their season with a disappointing 76-57 loss to Holy Angels in the first round of the Section 3AAA playoffs. But the memories of the game before that one will likely burn brightly for some time to come for the players and head coach Jesse McCann.

On their last game of the regular season on March 15, Highland came away with a 56-53 double-overtime victory at Central. It was the first win for the Scots over the Minutemen in six tries. More important, it upped Highland’s record to 10-2, which tied Central for the Saint Paul City Conference crown. It was the first time the Scots had finished atop the conference heap since 2004. Interestingly, that also was a co-title year with a 10-2 record shared with Johnson.

Back in January, McCann theorized that his team would need to break out the gate quickly with no nonconference games scheduled to prepare for league play. Since he had a veteran roster with a dozen seniors, he thought that was a reasonable expectation.

Things started out with a 13-point win over Washington, but the next game didn’t go so well as Central rolled to a 58-40 victory. “It was really our only bad game of the season,” McCann said. The Scots snapped back with a rout of Harding, but then lost a wild 88-87 contest to a Humboldt team that was on an early roll.

A one-point victory over Johnson on February 11 started Highland on an eight-game winning streak that stretched through the end of the regular season. A balanced offensive attack that featured four players with double-figure scoring averages was too much for City Conference foes to handle.

“Joey Kottke (15.8 points a game) was outstanding all year,” McCann said. “He was as good off the ball as he was when he had it in his hands.”

The 6-foot-4 senior really revved it up in a 66-58 win over Humboldt in their rematch on March 3. Kottke’s line score read like something Anthony Edwards might do: 30 points, seven three-pointers, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.

“Central is a tough team at any time, but to beat them in their gym and in double overtime was special,” McCann said.

The Scots’ senior leaders showed up when they rallied from an 11-point deficit in both victories over Johnson. “This class knew how to play together,” McCann said.

Carter Owens and Ilyaas Mohamud scored 11.2 points per game, and 6-foot-7 Nico Peterson averaged 10.9. Peterson was the top rebounder and played a big part in the win over Central with seven blocked shots.

“Central is a tough team at any time, but to beat them in their gym and in double overtime was special,” McCann said.

As with a lot of things in this COVID year, the Scots had to adjust in a hurry. Two days after the dramatic win over Central, they found themselves in Holy Angels’ gym playing in front of a real crowd for the first time all year. The Stars grabbed a seven-point halftime lead and wore down Highland in the second half, thus bringing the curtain down on a short, but memorable season.

A week after the section loss, McCann said he could smile at the memory of the regular-season finale. “There were only about eight people in Central’s gym that night,” he said, “but it was an electrifying experience.”

Highland gymnasts continue success 

The Highland Park gymnastics team made a return appearance to the state tournament on March 26-27. The Scots have long been a power in City Conference competition, winning or sharing 18 of the last 19 crowns. They outscored Simley 129.8-126.174 in the Section 4A meet on March 19 to earn their second straight trip to state.

The senior-laden team is led by India David and Lili Boyd, who went one-two in the all-around competition at the section meet. David and Boyd also won the individual titles in balance beam and bars, respectively.

At state, the Scots placed eighth with 131.750 points. David finished 21st in the all-around with 33.8 points, and Boyd was next in line at 33.075.

March Madness, indeed 

The first weekend of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships offered instructive lessons in many ways, some of which a lot of folks would like to forget as soon as possible. To wit:

  • The NCAA’s priorities were on full display off the court. The association fell all over itself apologizing after an Oregon player posted a video showing a major discrepancy between the men’s and women’s weight rooms. It was one thing for the men to get the prime-time coverage on several different networks over three days. That’s simply a business proposition. CBS pays gobs of money to show men’s games and ESPN happily offers women’s coverage. Title IX, however, says equal access to facilities is also required. The NCAA is too big to be embarrassed by anything, so it found a weight room that worked for the women and carried on as if nothing had been wrong.
  • All year long, we heard about how good Big Ten men’s basketball was. Gopher backers quickly asserted this to make us feel better about the subpar season that resulted in Richard Pitino being out of work for a day before being named head coach at New Mexico. Unfortunately, that assessment didn’t translate well to NCAA tournament play. Going into last weekend, only one Big Ten school (Michigan) remained standing. Second-seeded Ohio State, picked by some to be a challenger to Gonzaga for the title, was beaten by a 15th-seeded Oral Roberts team that will face the University of Saint Thomas in conference play next year. Many blue bloods either didn’t make the field or bowed out quickly. But it didn’t seem to bother too many people. The show, after all, must go on.
  • Ben Johnson, hired to replace Pitino as the Gopher men’s basketball coach, checks off a lot of boxes. He’s a local fellow who started his college career elsewhere, but came back here to finish. He was an assistant coach here and is a person of color. He seems well-liked. His challenge will be to convince Minnesota prep stars to stick around and see what he can do to snag free agents from other colleges. The concept that many Division I hoopsters are playing for the love of their school has been blown out of the water. The four-year starter may soon be as obsolete as a pay phone. None of that seems to bother the NCAA hierarchy. As noted earlier, the show that produces the dough must go on.  
  • The NCAA blew off the postseason hopes of Division III teams this year, abandoning their winter championships. The NCAA hid behind COVID concerns, but the fact is DIII teams don’t bring in anything close to the revenue the big boys do. Still, the DIII members outnumber their DI counterparts by a large margin. If they so desire, they can band together to gum up the works for future legislation. What seems inevitable is there will be a break at some point and one faction will head off on its own. Logic indicates that this would be the DI schools. Having the inmates run the asylum is never a good idea, but that’s where this would likely lead. 

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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