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Rebels withstand strong Esko counterattack

Moose Lake-Willow River running back Joe Weidendorf runs behind teammate Bryceton Butkiewicz during a first down run in Friday night's football game in Esko. Dave Harwig/ 1 / 3
Esko senior Reid Davidson catches a fourth-quarter touchdown pass in front of Moose Lake-Willow River's Isaac Riihiluoma during Friday night's football game. Dave Harwig/ 2 / 3
Esko quarterback Stone DeLeon 3 / 3

With a rich history of Rebel running backs, Moose Lake-Willow River football fuels its powerful program by pounding the ground, moving the chains and controlling the tempo.

Currently, their two most notable backfield mates are Bryceton Butkiewicz and Isaac Riihiluoma. The pair of seniors — with a mix of size, strength and speed — are a well-known dynamic duo.

After last Friday though, opponents should start scouting a three-headed monster.

Unfortunately for area schools not named the Rebels, senior Joe Weidendorf was the go-to guy in ML-WR's already multifaceted rushing attack last week when the 5-foot-9, 210-pounder provided 146 yards on 25 attempts in helping the Rebels withstand arch-rival Esko 36-33 before a crowded Esko Stadium.

"We had people in the right spots, but we just weren't bringing him down," said Esko coach Scott Arntson of Weidendorf.

Weidendorf, who lives in rural Rutledge and attends school in Willow River, is a great asset to add to the big-play Butkiewicz and speedy Riihiluoma. Sized like a mini bulldozer, Weidendorf plows up the middle each time he gets the ball, keeping his mindset simple.

While Butkiewicz and Riihiluoma rushed for a combined 37 times, 132 yards and four touchdowns, Weidendorf was the white jersey-wearing workhorse that carried the Rebels' load.

"I just wanted to keep my legs driving," Weidendorf said. "It's all about who wants it more."

And perhaps no one has been in the weight room as much as the stocky Rebel runner. Weidendorf said he pumped iron in Willow River all summer "pretty much every single day," and now during the season, he and many of his teammates spend over an hour per evening after practice lifting more weights. Weidendorf's favorite lifts, not surprising, involve his legs. He admitted he can squat nearly 400 pounds, which helps him break through opponents' tackling attempts.

"He's put a lot of time in the weight room and it shows," said Rebels coach Dave Louzek of Weidendorf, who also his starting middle linebacker on defense. "He's been a bit of a surprise to everybody, but as coaches, those are the kids that you appreciate. Joe's a great kid who works hard and deserves a lot of credit."

ML-WR (3-0), ranked second in Class AA, counted their 11th consecutive victory over the previous Polar League rival. That wasn't without a scare, however, from the steadily-improving Eskomos (0-3).

While the Eskomos are still learning and building under the tutelage of Arnston, in his first season taking over for the legendary coach Bill Hudspith, they have their own triple threat. Senior playmakers Stone DeLeon, Dawsen Cossalter and Reid Davidson provided plenty of oohs-and-aahs throughout the entertaining back-and-forth contest last week.

The hosts had leads of 13-8 in the second and 20-14 after the first play following halftime when Cossalter corralled a majestically thrown ball by DeLeon for 78 yards. That occurred after Cossalter came out of an army of Rebels defenders for a go-ahead rushing TD in the second.

DeLeon also added scoring strikes to Davidson and Ben Fischer, the latter of which was of 38 yards that, after kicker Selena Shady's third point-after kick, made it 36-33 with 1:57 to play.

Fireworks like last Friday's had been non-existent for the Eskomos this fall, as they’d been scoreless for the past six quarters entering the neighborhood meeting. Yet pushing the 10-time defending Section 7AA champion Rebels to the final moments of the game, Arntson's group is becoming one to watch out for.

"We definitely did some things better," said Arntson after the narrow three-point loss. "The kids have been great and are doing a good job. We just try to focus on us and get better each week. Each day we take a step."

Admitting he'd appreciate a reversed record, Arntson is keeping positive, especially with Esko’s potential in the October postseason.

"Our goal is to be hitting on all cylinders once playoffs start — and that's still our goal," said Arntson. "We're improving. The kids started from scratch, basically ground zero, and the kids have been doing a good job. I have no complaints."

Esko travels to Crosby-Ironton Friday, just another challenging opponent.

"That's all we get it seems like," said Arntson with a laugh.

The Rebels, which never trailed after a Butkiewicz TD made it 22-20 and a 16-yard Ryan Barrett interception return off DeLeon, still got all they could handle from their opponent. Esko actually kicked several onside kicks — all but one that was called offsides — until ML-WR eventually recovered it and ran out the clock.

"It definitely added  some gray hairs," Louzek said. "But anytime you can come out of [Esko] with a win, it's a huge deal for your program.”

Louzek added he wished they played the Eskomos twice, like they used to when both resided in 7AA.

"It always makes for a great game," said Louzek, whose team hosts Mora in Willow River Friday.

Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they are the next to prepare for a heavy dose of Butkiewicz, Riihiluoma and their newest running facet, Weidendorf.

"We've had a long history of great running backs," Louzek said. "That's a luxury to have."

"I love football. Every single play I think of it as my last, just trying to make every play the best I can do," said Weidendorf of the only sport he plays. "But it's a team thing. My teammates are like my family."