The Brainerd lakes area will not be represented at the Minnesota State High School League's state boys basketball tournament this week-by a team.
There are, however, two teams lakes area fans can cheer for in Class 3A's No. 4-seeded Princeton Tigers and Class 4A's No. 3-seeded East Ridge Raptors.
Princeton is coached by 2007 Brainerd High School graduate Brett Cloutier, leading the Tigers to their first state tournament appearance since 1932.
East Ridge will play in their first-ever state tournament under the leadership of second-year head coach Bryce Tesdahl, a 2008 Crosby-Ironton graduate.
Cloutier and Princeton
Cloutier joked there aren't many people in the Princeton community left who have seen Princeton play in the state tournament.
"The excitement has been pretty nonstop," Cloutier said. "It really picked up last week before our section final game. That's when the casual fans really started taking note. We had a lot of people at our section final game up in Duluth, two hours away, that made the trip on a school night. That was a lot of fun.
"So yeah, it's been pretty nonstop. I go to Coborn's, I feel like every aisle I go down someone is asking me about the game or congratulating me on the success. It's been fun. I know the guys are enjoying it, too. Their Instagram and Twitter followers are going up, too. The important things in life. The kids like it."
Princeton enters the state tournament with a 26-3 record. They won the Section 7-3A title by topping North Branch 82-64 in the quarterfinals. The Tigers eliminated Cloquet 88-70 in the semifinals and then won the section with a 91-76 win over Hibbing.
"I think we're top three in Class 3A for points per game," Cloutier said. "We really get up and down and score a lot. I think we're around 85 points per game. We had a game where we scored 113 points earlier in the year.
"We have a really nice balance of seven kids and it starts inside with our big guy averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds a game. He's going to St. John's next year to play. He had all MIAC teams wanting him. He shoots about 65 percent inside. He's a big body and a good finisher. He does a lot for us.
"Then we have good guard play. Our senior point guard, James Flicek, has been starting since he was a ninth-grader. He's a really good facilitator. He gets into our offense well. He gets the ball up the floor. He's a playmaker. And then we have good shooters on our perimeter."
This is Cloutier's sixth season as the Tigers head coach. The eighth-grade social studies teacher watched this group grow together. Princeton got a learning experience last year and that's what Cloutier thinks makes this season so special.
"This core of guys, a lot of them played as freshmen and sophomores two years ago when we won seven games, "Cloutier said. "Last year we had a huge jump to 20 wins and we were the No. 1 seed in our section and got bounced in the semifinals by the fourth seed. That one really stung and hurt with our guys, which motivated them to realize that we kind of overlooked some things last year. It really pushed our guys to get better through AAU, through summer workouts, through fall basketball and the weight room. To really have that goal in mind that we need to play our best basketball every single game and nothing can be taken for granted.
"It's been fun to see our guys deal with that adversity and then relish the success that we're having now."
Princeton will open the state tournament against No. 5-seeded Mahtomedi noon, Wednesday, March 20, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
"I thought we had a case for the three seed," Cloutier said. "DeLaSalle is obviously going to be No. 1. They are far and away the best team in this tournament. Waseca is really good. They have a really talented sophomore group and then a couple of high-talent seniors to go with them.
"I thought maybe we would have a claim for 3, but you know what? Just to be seeded and to wear our home jerseys at Williams Arena, to sit on the bench that the Gophers sit on, that's going to be pretty fun."
Cloutier will be a popular person this week among Brainerd basketball fans, especially his father, Joe Cloutier.
"Charlie (Schoeck, Brainerd's head coach) emailed me," Cloutier said. "Scott Stanfield sent me an email. A lot of buddies that I played with like Landon Stanfield and Mitch Means have texted me. The guys that I'm still good friends with that were in my wedding this past summer texted me so it's been the basketball people. My dad, bumps into Dave Tuchscherer (whose son Mark is the head coach at Champlin Park) every once in awhile and they always end up talking about their respective teams.
"My dad claims he just listens, but I don't believe that for a second."
Tesdahl and East Ridge
About two hours after Cloutier's Tigers finish their quarterfinal game, Tesdahl's Raptors will be preparing for their first state quarterfinal game.
"It's a good feeling to be back, I do know that," Tesdahl said. "It's been 11 years since I was there as a player. The kids have put in a lot of work to have the opportunity to play in another section final after losing last year to Cretin-Derham Hall. Being able to reverse that result was something we worked toward. We're grateful and excited to be playing in a state tournament this week."
East Ridge, which is located in Woodbury, won the Section 4-A title with a 74-45 blowout of Cretin. The Raptors eliminated Woodbury in the quarterfinals and St. Paul Central in the semifinals.
The Raptors are on a 24-game winning streak and own a 27-2 record. They lost to Prior Lake and Eden Prairie, which is in the state tournament, back in December.
"I think we have great senior leadership," Tesdahl said. "We have underclassmen that have bought into our culture and our process. We have six seniors that ever since I've gotten here have really bought into what we've been doing and I think the underclassmen have been doing the same.
"We are led by great senior leadership, but obviously we have the talent to go with it. We have some great kids that come from great families."
East Ridge will open its first state tournament against unseeded Eastview 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, at Target Center.
"East Ridge has had talented teams and good athletes and good basketball players before," Tesdahl said. "Last year was their first section final. It was my first year here. I know after that people were excited, but ultimately they wanted an East Ridge team to make it to state. I think people are really excited around the Woodbury community and obviously around East Ridge. This is something, we wanted to be the first. Now it's time to prove to everybody that we're not only good enough to make it, but we can win it as well."
Park Center nabbed the No. 1 seed for the 4A tournament. They will open against Section 8-4A winner Maple Grove. Hopkins, where Tesdahl's younger brother Brock is an assistant coach, got the No. 2 seed. The Royals will open against Cambridge-Isanti, whose head coach Mike McDonald is the uncle to Bryce and Brock Tesdahl.
That means win or lose, Tesdahl will face a relative in the next round.
"It's always kind of weird when you're playing against a family member," Tesdahl said. "Our family is very competitive, but obviously the relationships are there. Whether we play Cambridge or Hopkins it doesn't really matter. Both sides are going to be very competitive and want to win the game."
Tesdahl graduated from Crosby-Ironton in 2008. His last high school basketball game was at Target Center in the Class 2A state championship game. It was a loss to New London-Spicer that he called his biggest regret.
"I've been around great leadership ever since I was born with my grandpa (Bob) McDonald (the state's all-time wins leader) and my mom and dad and (Crosby-Ironton head coach Dave) Galovich," Tesdahl said. "I think the Crosby aspect has prepared me a lot for this opportunity. Ever since I was growing up, C-I has been in and out of the state tournament and playing in section finals. The atmosphere, I have that experience. Playing in a state championship game and losing that game is a day I want back in my life and it's one of the few. I shared that with our team. I've been there before as a player and I want to get there as a coach and reverse that result."