Posted On: 02/10/20 3:06 PM

Last summer I traveled through the Iron Range on my way to Canada and happened to make a stop at Mountain Iron-Buhl High School where coach Jeff Buffetta gave me a tour of the Rangers stunning new gymnasium. It is a beauty. “We play Cromwell here on February 8th,” he said. “You should come.” So I did.

My first visit to MIB was on Saturday night. Although it wasn’t a classic down-to-the-wire rivalry game, the atmosphere did not disappoint. Neither did the inspired play of Cromwell-Wright senior guard Taya Hakamaki, who turned in a dominant performance to lead the Cardinals to victory. Taya, a Minnesota-Duluth commit who is a top-30 prospect in the Prep Girls Hoops class of 2020, had a stunning first half that sparked Cromwell to the win. More on Taya’s game in a minute.

Even at practice the new gym at Mountain Iron-Buhl looks good.

Small-school pageantry

The atmosphere in the new MIB gym was as electric as anticipated, with the excitement level amping up appreciably as tip-off time neared. The band played with gusto. The cheerleaders chanted loudly. The fans stood and sang the school song. And a young boy – perhaps 7 or 8 years old – took to the floor in a hard hat, waving a big flag adorned with the Ranger crest, and planted it firmly on the logo at center court. This was small-school pageantry at its best.

A good portion of the crowd had made the journey 90 minutes north from Cromwell. There was a disproportionate number of them named Hakamaki, and they filled the entire center section of the main grandstand. It looked like one of those massive family reunions where everyone dresses in matching T-shirts and eats Aunt Elsa’s famed hotdish. They were loud and boisterous and appeared to savor pretty much every minute of what they witnessed on Saturday night.

Scanning both rosters prior to the game was a lot like reading the Helsinki phone directory. The descendants of all those Finns who came to Minnesota to work in the mines clearly love their basketball. Beyond the three Hakamakis – Taya, Shaily and Natalee – there were Jokinens and Savelas and Korpelas and Makis and Kuukkonens and Koivistos. Fortunately there was some diversity, as well, with the Johnsons, Linds and Olins also participating.

The PA announcer, who would be right at home at a monster truck extravaganza, was just as into the whole thing. The classic rock roared through the new gym’s state-of-the-art sound system as the starting lineups were introduced. The facility is excellent, as fine as any you will find anywhere in the state, but part of me pined for the past. I can only imagine what the atmosphere must have been like in the old facility at the now-vacated high school in the center of town.

A stunning individual effort

Cromwell coach Jeff Gronner wasn’t sure what to expect from his veteran squad. Influenza has swept through the team in recent days, with fully half of the student body at Cromwell-Wright out sick in the middle of last week. Even though the Cardinals had to be considered a favorite at this juncture, this was still Mountain Iron-Buhl, after all, and winning on the Rangers’ new court would not be easy for the visitors.

Having said that, things are different this year at MIB. The star-studded days of Mary Burke (Minnesota-Crookston), Allie Negen (NIACC), Chelsea Mason (formerly UM-Duluth), Macy Savela (Jamestown) and others are long gone. In their place is a swarm of interchangeable pests who come at you in waves, attack your best ball-handlers and defend with ferocity. MIB’s defense-first approach had worked very well against Cherry on Thursday as the Rangers managed to frustrate the Tigers into submission. On this night it wasn’t enough, and the Rangers had no such success with the Hakamakis.

MIB jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead. Then Taya got down to business, scoring her first basket of the game from underneath the rim four and a half minutes into the game. At the 10:44 mark Taya made two free throws to tie the game at 11-11.  She made two more at 9:17 as the Cardinals pulled ahead. At 8:40 she buried a long three. At 8:06 she converted on an and-1. At 7:20 she nailed a corner three. At 6:58 she added another pair of free throws.

About a minute later Taya stole the ball, sprinted the length of the floor and was fouled as she elevated to the basket. She made both of those free throws, too. It was a sterling run of success from the exceptional guard, and the die had been cast. Although MIB 8th grader Hali Savela nailed a buzzer-beating three at halftime, the Cardinals were up by eight points and in control.

Out of the break Cromwell stretched the lead as 5’9 sophomore guard Andrea Pocernich scored a quick five points to give the Cardinals a bigger cushion. Taya made two field goals before the period had reached its mid-way point. Then Natalee Hakamaki completed an and-1 that was quickly followed by a pair of buckets by Shaily Hakamaki. That stretched the margin to 15 and it was pretty much over. The final score was 59-46 for the visitors.

Taya Hakamaki was the main attraction for Cromwell-Wright. (Photo courtesy of KJBR Television)

Seasoned veterans vs raw rookies

Taya finished the game with 3 threes, 5 twos and was 9-for-9 at the free throw line. That’s 28 points for the crafty 5’8 combo guard, who has deceptive speed, terrific handles and that ‘it’ factor that makes a player special. She is averaging over 25 points per game this season, while shooting an incredible 66% from the field, 84% at the line. After missing her sophomore season with a torn ACL, Hakamaki returned with a vengeance one year ago and reminded us why she is one of the state’s top talents.

Senior Shaily Hakamaki, who is Taya’s cousin, is a 5’10 guard who is also committed to Minnesota-Duluth. She’s averaging 17.5 points per game and scored 13 on Saturday. Her sister Natalee Hakamaki is a 5’11 forward with a big frame, who overpowers opponents with her strength. She hit her season average against MIB with 9 points and was 5-for-5 at the free throw line. As a team, Cromwell was a perfect 16-for-16. The sophomore Pocernich, who also starts for the Cardinals, contributed three field goals. The fifth starter, senior forward Emmalee Hoover, scored once.

While Cromwell is loaded with veterans, MIB is playing with its youngest lineup in years. Freshman Sage Ganyo, a 5’4 guard who defends as though her life depends on it, has been the Rangers’ best player. 8th graders Hali Savela (5.5 ppg) and Jordan Zubich are emerging stars who coach Buffetta believes have all-state potential. Zubich, who has recently grown about six inches to a height of 5’10, leads the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game, a hair ahead of Ganyo (13.1).

Sophomores Ava Butler (8.3), Brooke Niska (5.8), and Jacie Kvas (5.2) have been solid while seniors Mia Ganyo (8.6) and Miah Gellerstedt (7.5) have been a steadying influence. As you can no doubt gather from the scoring averages, MIB’s approach is about as team-oriented as it gets. That philosophy has worked well most of the season, but wasn’t quite enough against the Cardinals.

Can Cromwell make it to Minneapolis?

Although the folks in Cherry no doubt have a differing opinion, it is pretty clear that Cromwell-Wright and Mountain Iron-Buhl are the class of section 7A, which has sent the Rangers to the state tournament for the past nine years in a row. Cromwell is now 18-2, with a two-point losses to Minneota and Hermantown the only blemishes on their record. The Cardinals have quality wins over Duluth Marshall, Mesabi East, Proctor and now MIB. Cromwell has held its opponent under 30 nine times and under 20 three times. They have won by margins of over 60 points twice, over 50 five times.

After graduating 13 letter-winners, MIB is still 15-6. Their losses are all to strong programs such as Duluth Marshall, Pine City and Proctor. The Rangers’ winning margins have been as high as 62, 63 and 72. Clearly these two teams are well beyond anything else class A has to offer in their part of the state.

We refer to the Cromwell vs MIB match-up as a rivalry, and it is. But it is only recently that Cromwell has shown it can compete with the mighty Rangers. Buffetta shrugged off the loss on Saturday. The same thing happened last year when Cromwell scored a 20-point win over Mountain Iron in late January. Prior to that MIB had dominated the Cardinals for years. Which team will emerge this year in section 7A? That’s the big question.

Last fall our friends at Breakdown Sports asked me to participate in pre-season predictions, which were then published in their yearbook. For my class A winner I chose Cromwell. “The Hakamaki Express will keep on rolling across the Iron Range,” I wrote. “Heritage and Minneota might have something to say before it’s over but the Cardinals have the tools to triumph.”

When asked for my best go-out-on-a-limb prediction I said this: “Mountain Iron-Buhl wins the state class A title in its 10th straight appearance. If the Cromwell prediction is a bust that means the Cardinals lost to the Rangers, who could then win it all. MIB’s star power may have graduated but Jeff Buffetta has a long line of understudies who are ready to step up and surprise us all.”

Following my journey to the Iron Range over the weekend those predictions still stand. In the words of country crooner Colin Raye, ‘That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.’

Top photo: Mountain Iron-Buhl’s new lineup had success in 2019 at the Breakdown summer state championships. (Photo courtesy of Breakdown Sports USA)