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Lumberjacks, Eskomos kick off the fall

The Cloquet football team practices a variety of drills early Wednesday morning. “Keep your feet moving,” the coaches kept repeating for this drill, where one unfortunate player had to try to move imposing freshman Jerome Henagin. Jamie Lund/ 1 / 3
Jamie Lund/ 2 / 3
Jamie Lund/ 3 / 3

There are few rivalries in the region that compare to the Lumberjacks and Eskomos football teams. Less than five miles separate the pair of towns, both rich in athletic tradition, one big and the other small.

Playing against one another again on opening night will be must-see action, as Cloquet hosts Esko next Friday, Sept. 2, at Bromberg Field. The Lumberjacks are coming off a 3-6 campaign last fall that ended in the opening round of the Section 7AAAA playoffs, while the Eskomos are returning after a run to the Section 7AAA final during a 7-3 year.

But don't let that fool you, this contest should again be exciting from the opening kick.

Kicking off the season three years ago, Cloquet won the first two meetings, while Esko eased to a 48-6 victory last August. Expect perhaps a closer margin on the scoreboard this time around, but plan to get there early, as the crowd could be expected in the hundreds, maybe even more.

"I think our kids are excited about that matchup and, really, I think most people in both communities are," said Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz, also the school's activities director. "The kids grew up playing together and Esko obviously has a good tradition. It's always a great test for us."

Lenarz, now in his 14th season with the Lumberjacks, has rebuilt a program that had player counts in the 30s when he started, but said Tuesday they now have 97, still a lower number than in recent seasons.

Playing in a large class, depth is key for Cloquet as a small fish in a big pond. Lenarz admitted his team overall has more speed than in the past, including the likes of seniors Spencer Wehr, Aasan Maigag and Evan Erickson, all of whom can score.

Erickson, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end, is also a state discus thrower, placing fourth this past spring. He also holds the school discus record, and broke the Lake Superior Conference record set formerly by Duluth Denfeld's CJ Ham, who currently plays for the Minnesota Vikings.

With that kind of size and strength in Erickson and others, plus players who possess speed and skills, the team and its coaches are optimistic about their season ahead.

"We feel real good about where we're at," said Lenarz. "We're going to be more explosive on both sides of the ball and a little more competitive along the line. We have a ton of energy. Our coaches feed off the kids and coaches feed off the kids."

"Fall is my favorite time of year," added Erickson. "It feels great to get the pads back on and start hitting again. We're fired up to play. Student sections, pep bands; it will be a lot of fun."

Meanwhile at Esko, Scott Arntson takes over for the longtime legendary coach Bill Hudspith, who was at the helm for 28 years.

As just the fourth coach in Esko's football history, Arntson, an assistant for Hudspith for a handful of seasons, is honored to hold the job. His goal is to keep things simple as he implements some new things and gets his team of 59 players off and running.

Arntson noted that among players to watch are Declan Sinnott-James and Reid Davidson, both seniors, along with senior Dawsen Cossalter, a 100-meter state sprinter this past track season.

If there is one thing Esko will have — like most seasons — it will be speed. With guys like Cossalter and Co., the Eskomos will have the ability to stretch the field. Arntson admitted Cloquet will have a distinct size advantage on his crew, while he knows neither team will be near full-throttle by next Friday.

As far as the matchup itself, Arntson is, too, a fan.

"I think it's great way to start off every year," Arntson said. "Cloquet versus Esko is perfect."

Meanwhile, also the school's girls track coach, girls hockey assistant and math team director, Arntson is a busy guy after adding football to his plate. He said he's not comparing himself to former coaches Les Knuti, Bob Peterson or Hudspith any time soon.

"I'm not going to be able to live up to any of those three. They are all hall of famers. If you look at the Mount Rushmore of Esko, all three of them are on there," Arntson said, respectfully. "I'm just concentrated on us running the next play and running it well."