Lumberjacks run over Eskomos in season opener
CLOQUET—Former lineman Spencer Wehr is only in his third year playing running back, but the Cloquet junior did his fair share of scoring last Friday to help the Lumberjacks to a 39-14 victory over neighboring Esko at a fan-filled Bromberg Field in Cloquet.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder tallied three touchdowns and 104 yards on just 14 carries. His football philosophy is pretty straightforward.
"First get some yards," he said, "then score."
Although the pair of rival high schools are separated by fewer than five miles, it was just the fourth meeting between the two football teams. While Cloquet carded victories in the first two contests, Esko eased by its counterparts 48-6 in a weather-shortened game a season ago.
This time around, the boys in purple never trailed.
Wehr got the scoring started on a 5-yard burst late in the first quarter, only to be answered by the Eskomos 26 seconds later, sparked by a 67-yard kickoff return by senior Reid Davidson. Junior teammate Peterson then plunged in from 8 yards out.
Cloquet returned to its running game then, something veteran coach Tom Lenarz has always tried to stress, and Wehr found the end zone from 8 yards away. Senior Kobe Kadelbach later followed with a score on the ground. Thereafter, the teams swapped TDs and the Lumberjacks led 26-14 at halftime.
Both communities celebrated their youth football medal night during halftime, and plenty of cameras were flashing to capture smiling youngsters on an evening already set with pleasant weather and plenty in attendance. While the Cloquet students were dressed head-to-toe in purple and white school colors, Esko students went with a Hawaiian theme.
"You can't get a better night than that," said Lenarz, now in his 14th season.
Lenarz and the Lumberjacks (1-0) kept running the ball in the second half. Wehr continued where he left off, while junior teammate Aahsan Maigag added a game-high 117 yards on 13 carries. Senior Joe Deppa (56-5) and junior Mitchell Gerlach (42-3) were also difficult to defend.
Speaking of defense, Cloquet was led by senior middle linebacker Evan Pokornowski and his eight tackles.
Pokornowski is one of three brothers playing football, including younger sibling Tim, the team's quarterback, who was a perfect 6-for-6 for 131 yards and a touchdown pass for the hosts.
"We were happy with how the kids responded," said Lenarz. "For a lot of them, this was their first varsity experience, so we had a lot of butterflies and jitters. In the second, we cleaned those things up and I think our size and physicality just wore [Esko] down."
That’s not surprising, as Lenarz utilizes upperclassmen the most. Rarely do sophomores see the varsity field for Lenarz, who believes in building the program with older, stronger and more experienced players each fall, especially being in Section 7AAAA. That said, after playing freshmen and junior varsity football — in which his current players had plenty of success — they are ready for the bright lights on Fridays.
His strong senior and especially junior class are showing that clearly, but they’ve have also put in the offseason hours, Lenarz added.
"What people don't realize is how hard these kids work," he said. "They have put a ton of time in the weight room and do all of the little things you ask. I've been really impressed with all of the boys and their work ethic."
Wehr said he spent six days a week in the summer lifting weights and working on his speed with his classmates. If you break that down to hours, it's an easy answer.
"A lot," said Wehr. "We want to be great."
Wehr added that although winning their first game against a nearby rival was a good start, he and the Lumberjacks can still improve. He figures if that happens, perhaps a trip back to the state tournament like in 2013 and 2014 could be possible. Wehr was a freshman when Cloquet last qualified.
"I think we have a shot, but you can't expect to go there without any work," Wehr said.
Still only several days past Labor Day, the season is in its infancy and Lenarz is aware of that. The Lumberjacks travel to Virginia Friday.
"We were certainly happy with a lot of things, but there are certainly a lot of things we still need to work on," Lenarz said. "It was a good first game, but we can play better going forward."
On the other hand, Wehr's basic approach of yards and scoring seems to be just fine.
"Just knowing that you're scoring points for your team and doing what you have to do is just a really good feeling," Wehr said. "If you're congratulating someone or being congratulated, it's a cool moment, just being there for your teammates."
Esko, meanwhile, is fine despite having lost their inaugural game under first-year coach Scott Arntson. Arntson took over from Bill Hudspith, who compiled an 185-87 record in 26 seasons at the helm. Arntson said Hudspith would be on the "Mount Rushmore" of Esko, if one existed.
Arntson is no rookie to the coaching world himself, nor the community. He was the head coach at Duluth Marshall for several seasons, and he is currently an assistant for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey program and head coach of the Esko girls track team. He's also a math team instructor in Esko.
Arntson admitted his football team, which lost an abundance of seniors from a year ago, is still getting accustomed to his system and figuring things out, but was fast to point out the wear-and-tear of Cloquet's size, strength and speed.
"They were good, really tough," Arntson said of the Lumberjacks. "We would have had to play pretty clean to keep up with them. We're still learning, so that was a tall task in the first week."
Esko senior speedster Dawsen Cossalter, a state 100-meter sprinter this past spring, ran 10 times for 74 yards and had a 14-yard TD catch via senior QB Stone DeLeon to pace the Eskomos (0-1).
Nonetheless, Arntson, who wore a blue Esko pullover on top of his shirt and tie last week, remains confident in his crew as they continue to learn in early September. They travel to Two Harbors Friday.
"We have some athletes, but a few haven't played football in quite a while," Arntson said. "It'll take us a little while to get some traction. But they all have great attitudes."