The St. Scholastica men’s basketball team had just started its season when the NCAA announced in early February that it was canceling its Division III winter championships due to low participation numbers.

While that hit the Saints like a technical foul, Nick Carlson and Co. said the Saints had no other option but to bounce back.

“That was pretty disappointing to hear just because we had such high expectations, but we still have something to play for,” said Carlson, a 6-foot-4 junior guard from Canyon. “We’re still playing for a conference championship. Our guys understand that we won’t make it to the national tournament, but what can you do, you know?”

And by this point in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic — and hate to say it — but athletes and fans are almost used to it, hardened by cycles of inflated optimism followed by deep disappointment.

“No kidding,” Carlson said. “Everyone’s going through it.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

So while this week’s UMAC basketball tournaments offer no automatic bids into the NCAA Division III tournament like normal, they do offer a chance to hoist a UMAC championship trophy, not to mention bragging rights. That is especially important for the Saints as they move into the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference next season.

“It’s our last year in the UMAC, so we kind of want to go out with a bang,” Carlson said.

The top-seeded Saints (8-0), off to their best start in program history, open tournament quarterfinal action against eighth-seeded Northland (0-7) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Reif Gym.

“These guys are on a mission,” CSS coach David Staniger said. “OK, it’s our last year in the league. Let’s win the league, let’s win the tournament. It’s our last dance, type of thing. Let’s make it count and go out champions.”

From a Northland talent standpoint, the Saints are an easy team to root for. It’s a bit of a who’s who of recent News Tribune All-Area teams.

CSS graduated only one senior from last season in offensive spark plug Collin Anderson — who led the team in scoring at 15.4 ppg despite coming off the bench — so the Saints were expecting big things.

“I’d say we’re kind of living up to the expectations,” Carlson said.

Jack Silgen, a former Crosby-Ironton star, played point guard in high school but is the Saints’ No. 5, that’s how versatile he is. He leads the team at 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, followed by Carlson (15.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Quinn Fischer of Esko (12.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg).

“I’m really happy for the guys,” Staniger said. “They’ve handled a lot of this better than I have. When the first thing on your practice plan is, ‘Did everyone get tested today?’ it’s a lot of stuff other than basketball, and these guys have been great about that all year.

“They have a composure about them, they keep their poise. When things are going a little haywire, there’s no panic in the huddle. These guys love to compete, and that’s what I love about this team.”

Jarod Wilken (8.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), the team’s lone senior, is next, followed by Duluth East’s Isiah Hendrickson (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg) and Noah Winesett (5.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg) and former Hermantown Hawk Connor Bich (5.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg).

“It’s nice to do it with these local guys, and that’s important to me — succeeding and winning with local talent,” said Staniger, a Chisholm High School graduate. “There’s a lot of schools out there, especially in the Twin Cities, that don’t think northern Minnesota basketball is very good, but we think we are and we’re proving it. We’ve got a lot of versatility and can score at all levels. I think we’re a hard guard.”

Carlson’s shooting numbers this year are enough for anyone to be impressed, no matter where they’re from. He’s shooting 55.6% from the field and 48.5% from 3-point range (16 of 33).

While Carlson might be putting up the big college numbers, his high school basketball resume doesn’t quite match those of his teammates.

Sophomore point guard Cade Goggleye of Nett Lake — who has 28 assists to only six turnovers this season — was the 2018-19 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year. Fischer earned the same honor for 2017-18.

You don’t have to remind Carlson of that. He remembers all too well from his days being a four-sport standout at South Ridge High School.

Carlson called Goggleye “the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with,” but that doesn’t mean the North Woods product can’t light it up, as Goggleye reminds him of from time to time.

“I played against him in high school,” Carlson said, before laughing, “and I don’t like to say it, but he dropped 62 points on us. Granted, we weren’t very good, but Cade’s perfectly fine just dishing out assists and not scoring a lot. He’s just a good team player.

“And being in the Polar League, we always played Esko, and I can say in high school I wasn’t a huge fan of any Esko guys — they always kicked our butts. But Quinn’s a great guy. It’s great to play with guys you went against in high school. You come together as a team and it’s really fun.”

Carlson was asked to describe this year’s Saints in one word, and he said “competitive,” but soon added the words “deep” and “unselfish.”

If things go well this week, he could soon be adding the word “champions.”

“There’s definitely no guarantee, but we all feel we’re the best team in the conference,” Carlson said. “Now we’ve got to go out and show it.”

Best of the rest

The Twin Ports’ three remaining UMAC basketball teams are all very young and have dealt with growing pains this year.

Fifth-seeded Wisconsin-Superior (3-3) opens at fourth-seeded Bethany Lutheran (5-3) at 5 p.m. Thursday in the men’s quarterfinals in Mankato, Minnesota.

The Yellowjackets have no seniors and just three juniors. UWS had a difficult time getting games in due to COVID-19 protocols but have played well recently. The Yellowjackets fell 69-62 Monday to Northwestern but would have earned the No. 2 seed with a win. Superior products Mason Ackley, Joe Barker and Xavier Patterson are all contributing while Eli Vogel has been really good the last three games. Newcomers J’Vaun Walker and Souleyman Gueye have provided a boost.

Seventh-seeded St. Scholastica (0-8) opens at second-seeded Northwestern (13-4) at 5 p.m. Thursday in the women’s quarterfinals.

The Saints are very young and have dealt with injury and COVID-related hurdles this year, with players opting out.

Senior guard Kaylee Kennedy of Littlefork, is 18 points away from 1,000 for her career and leads the team at 11.2 ppg. Another senior, Morgan Anderson, has battled through injuries to lead the team in rebounding at 6.2 rpg and is second in scoring at 9.3 ppg. Freshman Liz Fraze of Proctor has played well in the post and has an exciting future with the Saints.

Fifth-seeded Wisconsin-Superior (4-5) opens at fourth-seeded Minnesota-Morris (5-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday in the women’s quarterfinals.

The Yellowjackets have only one senior and two juniors. Sophomore Kaija Davies missed most of last year with an injury but has provided consistent post play. She had 21 points and 11 rebounds in Monday’s 59-49 victory over St. Scholastica.

Sophomore Kaelyn Christian has been another reliable threat, in particular from the outside, Superior native Ellie Leadstrom is the lone senior and has started every game.