Northland creates a buzz
THIEF RIVER FALLS - Rick Nikunen has been busier than usual the past few days. The same holds true for Guy Finstrom. But the two coaches aren't complaining. They're actually pretty happy since both are headed to the NJCAA Division III national to...
THIEF RIVER FALLS - Rick Nikunen has been busier than usual the past few days.
The same holds true for Guy Finstrom.
But the two coaches aren't complaining. They're actually pretty happy since both are headed to the NJCAA Division III national tournament this week in New York.
Nikunen is the Northland Community and Technical College men's basketball coach, while Finstrom coaches the Northland women's team.
Both teams qualified for the national tournament last week by winning regional championships. The Northland men are making their first trip to the national tournament, while the Pioneer women are making their first trip since 2002.
"There's a buzz around here," Nikunen said. "We appreciate all the support we've been getting. It's special."
The teams took different routes to their respective tournaments.
The Northland men have been strong all season. The Pioneers have won 24 in a row, a streak that includes the Minnesota Community College Conference and NJCAA Region XIII titles.
Northland's women took a different path. Under Finstrom, who is in his first season as the Pioneers coach, Northland started the season 3-10 before turning it on in the second half of the season.
Northland will play Gloucester County College of Sewell, N.J., on Thursday in a first-round game in Delhi, N.Y. Gloucester is 23-9 on the season, while Northland is 27-4.
Nikunen said Gloucester is a lot like Northland.
"We match up with them size-wise," Nikunen said. "They're a guard-oriented team, similar to us. Their style of play is similar. They'll run when they have a chance and they'll be patient when the fastbreak isn't there. It looks like we're playing a team a lot like us."
Gloucester may have one advantage in the fact it played in last year's national tournament.
Northland is making the trip with a roster than includes only one sophomore, point guard Brandon Fontes, a former Grand Forks Central standout.
The Pioneers are led by Kyrk Freeman, a 5-foot-11 guard from Canton, Ohio, who averages 17.5 points per game. Trumaine Johnson, a 6-1 guard from Ville Platte, La., averages 13.1 points, while 6-8 center Tomas Loberg of Grygla, Minn., averages 12.1 points.
"There is a lot of satisfaction in the development of our freshmen," Nikunen said. "You have to give credit to them. They bought into what we're doing." Northland womenAfter the team's 3-10 start, the Pioneers went 11-6 in the second half of the season, which included a 66-64 win against Itasca Community College of Grand Rapids, Minn., in last week's Region XIII championship game.
"We got a little bit better every game," Finstrom said. "The girls got more confidence. We did more man-to-man defense and did more with our full-court pressure. Our athleticism took over."
Northland will play the College of DuPage, Ill., on Thursday in a first-round game in Utica, N.Y. The teams aren't strangers. DuPage beat Northland in the 2002 national championship game.
Northland is led by Jackie Fossum, a 5-7 guard from Thief River Falls who averages 18 points. Casey Engelstad, a 5-10 forward from Thief River Falls, averages 12 points, while the team's top rebounder is Sara Rindahl, a 5-9 center from Goodridge, Minn.
The Pioneers are down to eight players. They started out with 14, but injuries and academics cut the roster nearly in half.
Finstrom is also the Northland football coach.
However, there was a coaching change in the women's program after last season. Finstrom, who coached high school girls basketball at Grygla-Goodridge the past three seasons, agreed to take over the Pioneer program.
Finstrom said he was asked by the school president to take over the Northland program.
"You don't say no to the president," Finstrom said.
Both teams will leave for New York on Monday. They'll bus to Minneapolis, where they'll catch a flight to Syracuse, N.Y.
Reach Nelson at 780-1268, (800) 477-6572 ext. 268 or email@example.com .