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Cloquet boys basketball team 'on fire'

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In the game of basketball, there are times when a team's performance or skills are termed to be "on fire."

Last week, though, I believe the Cloquet Middle School boys basketball teams redefined that phrase.

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Getting ready to travel to nearby Barnum for their season opener last Tuesday afternoon, the Cloquet seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball team school bus caught fire.

No, not a little smolder, a real fire -- flames and all.

"The flames were insane," said Lumberjacks co-coach Donny McCarthy, 43, not able to reach with his wingspan wide or high enough to describe their higher-than-the-bus height. "Flames were pouring out of the dash. The smoke was bad -- it was black. The whole front end was on fire."

The presumed electrical fire first started as smoke when the bus driver evacuated the 30-plus players, before she contacted dispatch, immediately leading to 911. Moments later, Cloquet detective Darrin Berg arrived and used a fire extinguisher from his patrol vehicle to contain the blaze, while the school's east wing side street was soon barricaded and the fire department got to the site.

Principal Tom Brenner, in his 11th year, was on the phone before rushing to the scene that he said lasted just 10-15 minutes and was handled well by all adults involved.

"The bus driver did a fantastic job, the coaches did their job, the staff in the building recognized the situation and made sure everyone was safe," Brenner said this week. "It's a bad situation, but that's why we do emergency drills, so we're prepared. We're just thankful no one was injured.

"I've never seen anything like it."

Co-coach RaRa Jones, 21, helped evacuate all of the kids, before safely getting them on another bus to board.

He tried to calm the talk of the fire, with no avail.

"They talked the whole way," Jones said. "We'll talk about it forever. It's something I'll always remember."

"It was all over the news," added seventh-grade guard Justin Kolodge, who called his mother and father before taking plenty of photos of the flaming bus with his iPod.

"Words can't really describe what was going through my mind at the time," said eighth-grade guard Jordan Bolos. "Something like that just doesn't happen every day."

Later that day, Barnum beat both of the Cloquet teams.

"It would have been nice to win, but the main thing is we all got off the bus OK and no one was hurt," Bolos added. "We play Barnum later; we just have to beat them at home."

Hopefully by then, it will be their skills that are on fire.

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