by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Zimmerman is not an Iron Range town but the Thunder boys basketball team knows their road back to the state tournament goes through jack pine country this year and next.
And there’s some formidable teams up north, especially Grand Rapids, whom the Thunder hosted on Saturday in a much-anticipated event on the ZHS sports calendar.
Zimmerman led at halftime but lost 64-56 to the towering, No. 3 ranked Thunderhawks, who are champions four straight years of Section 7AAA, which the Thunder joined this year after being bumped from Class AA to AAA.
A 6-foot-8 freshman center, Alex Illkainen, led Grand Rapids with 20 points.
“Yeah, it’s great being in their section for two years, with him in there,” chuckled Zimmerman coach Ben Kvidt.
Austin Pohlen, fifth-year point guard, added 19 points, and 6-foot-8 senior Mike Spoden laid in 15 more, for the Thunderhawkws (9-1).
“They showed why they’ve gone to the state tournament so many times,” said Kvidt.
The Thunder (7-3) sank seven 3-point shots in the first half and led 32-27, but fell as much as 11 points behind in the second half and had a six-game win streak snapped. A two-handed dunk by Spodem made it 58-47, the visitors’ biggest lead.
“We shot and rebounded well in the first half,” said Kvidt, “but they wore us down with all their size and started getting all the rebounds and taking us out of our rhythm.”
It didn’t help that Zimmerman had played the night before, a 52-34 win over Milaca.
Senior guard Kyle Connelly sank 15 points, junior forward Jake Wilson 14, and senior center Nate Christensen 12 for the Thunder, who finished with 10 treys, including four each by Connelly and Christensen.
“They are a tough team to match up with,” said Grand Rapids coach Dan Elhard about Zimmerman. “They really run the floor well and they can spread it out with all their shooters.”
About his team’s surge in the second half, Elhard said, “We got a little bump there, and opened a little lead, and from there on it was an even game again. Our big guys hit the boards pretty well the second half, better than the first half.”
Grand Rapids has also beaten Duluth Denfeld (8-2), another tall Section 7AAA contender, 72-58. They lost to St. Cloud Cathedral (6-3), a team Zimmerman has beaten, on “one of those nights,” the coach said.
Zimmerman held Fan Appreciation Day for this Saturday afternoon marquee matinee with lots of free cookies and prizes.
“We got to play the best team in the section, at home, with fan appreciation day and a big crowd,” said Kvidt. “And this game is a good barometer for where we need to get to.”
The Thunder will host Becker on Tuesday evening.
Grand Rapids – Alex Illkainen 20, Austin Pohlen 19, Mike Spoden 15, David Liebe 10
Zimmerman – Kyle Connelly 15, Jake Wilson 14, Nate Christensen 12, Caleb Lunning 8, Ethan Lunning 7