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Cloquet, Esko ready for gridiron battle

Cloquet quarterback Tim Pokornowski throws a pass during Tuesday's football practice. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 2
Cloquet football coach Tom Lenarz talks to players prior to practice Tuesday afternoon. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 2

IF YOU GO

It's an all-local kickoff to high school football when Cloquet hosts Esko at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, at Rol Bromberg Field.

FOOTBALL PREVIEWS: LARGE SCHOOLS

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The high school football season opens for both Esko and Cloquet on Friday night. Expect plenty of action as the neighboring schools will battle each other on the gridiron in Cloquet at Rol Bromberg Field.

The following is a preview for both schools and what their coaches anticipate for the upcoming season.

Playing in Class AAAA again this season, the Lumberjacks are looking for a return trip to the state tournament. As one of the smallest schools in Section 7AAAA, Cloquet will need to stay as healthy as possible to try and compete in a section that also includes Hermantown, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, North Branch and Duluth Denfeld.

"We should be very competitive with a large number of returning starters back from last year's Section 7AAAA championship team," said Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz. "Depth will be a key for us — like all small AAAA schools, we can't afford a lot of injuries."

The Lumberjacks will rely on Jordan Peil at center, Josh Bushey at tight end and Dylan Lauer — who was named Honorable Mention All District last year — at tackle to anchor an offensive line that will block for some of the area's most dynamic runners. Tim Pokornowski returns at quarterback, and Spencer Wehr is back at fullback. Wehr was named All District last season and Pokornowski was named Honorable Mention in the district last season. The 'Jacks also return the speedy Mitch Gerlach and Aahsan Maigag at running back, but they also have a host of other talented runners who can add depth when needed.

"Wehr, Lauer and Pokornowski are getting looks by Division II schools for college football," explained Lenarz. "All are returning starters from the section championship team and will be impact players this year."

Cloquet also return eight starters on the defensive side of the ball led by a trio of senior linebackers: Bushey, Peil and Jayden Schneberger. Wehr returns at defensive end where last year he was named All District and Lauer is back at defensive tackle and defensive end where he was named Honorable Mention last season on defense. The 'Jacks are also fast in the defensive backfield with Tyler Moose at free safety, Gerlach at strong safety and Maigag at cornerback. All are capable of running down most players from behind and staying with the fastest receivers in the area.

"Peil and Lauer make us very tough up the middle," Lenarz said. "Overall team speed will be better this year with Maigag, Gerlach and Moose in the defensive backfield."

One thing fans can expect is a team that will not rely on just the run this season. With Pokornowski back at quarterback, the 'Jacks have the ability to throw and run and be equally impressive doing either.

"We expect more balance on offense," said Lenarz. "With Pokornowski being a legitimate dual threat for us, that gives us more options."

ESKO

Scott Arntson enters his second season as head coach of the Eskomos. Last year his team went 2-8 and struggled at times on both sides of the ball. However, with six starters back on defense and five starters returning on offense, the Eskomos look to be better all the way around this season.

"We have the potential to be fast at the skill positions," Arnston said. "The team is still getting used to new systems on the offensive and defensive side of the ball."

Esko will return four players on the offensive line led by Zach Greniger at center, Trevor Inman and Nolan Busch at guard and Kade Larson at tackle. Also returning on offense are running back Tyler Peterson and Branden Matteen at wide receiver.

The Eskomos — who now play in the Northeast Blue Division — have a tough opener with Class AAAA Cloquet on the road Friday night. The following week they will face Two Harbors on the road before finally playing their first game at home Sept. 15 against Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin.

Defensively the Eskomos will return a solid nucleus of seven players, including four linemen and three linebackers, which should bode well for the Esko defense. Both defensive tackles return in Mason Follett and Alec Lathrop as well as both defensive ends in Busch and Dane Stoyanoff.

"We play in a tough conference," said Arntson of the Northeast Blue Division. "We have a very tough schedule to deal with this year."

NE Blue features Esko, Pine City, Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton and Mora, all of which have had storied traditions in the past.

"Each game will be a fight to the end," commented Arntson. "If we stay healthy I expect us to improve each week and hopefully we can be in the top four of the section."

Once the regular season is complete the Eskomos will need to fight out of a tough Section 7AAA that features Virginia, Two Harbors, Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin, Proctor and International Falls. Last season the Eskomos entered sectional play as the No. 5 seed and defeated the No. 4-seeded Virginia Blue Devils 20-14 in Virginia in the first round before bowing out of the playoffs to No. 1-seeded Proctor 17-6 in the semi-finals.

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