Entering this year's high school football season, a look at the middle part of the Cloquet Lumberjack schedule revealed a daunting task for the team. Back-to-back games against North Branch, Grand Rapids and Proctor loomed on the horizon. So far the 'Jacks have answered the call by going 5-0 on the season, beating North Branch on the road and Grand Rapids at home in the last two weeks. Now, Cloquet will focus on a tough Proctor team this Friday night.
"North Branch is a very good team and they gave us a run for the money last week," Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz said about the 'Jacks narrow 32-28 road win. "They are as physical a team up front as we've played, and the quarterback is a tremendous athlete and competitor. If they stay healthy they will be a tough team to beat in sectional play."
Cloquet returned to Rol Bromberg Field for the Homecoming game Friday night against an impressive Grand Rapids team, but the Lumberjacks led throughout and ended with a 49-28 win.
Quarterback Tim Pokornowski came out throwing the football against the Thunderhawks as the 'Jacks rolled to a 20-6 edge after the opening quarter. Pokornowski hit Aahsan Maigag for a 44-yard touchdown pass on Cloquet's first possession for a 6-0 lead. Spencer Wehr bulled in from a yard out two minutes later, giving the 'Jacks a 13-0 lead after the extra point kick by Eli Benson.
The Thunderhawks bounced back on a Brody Holm three-yard touchdown run, cutting the Cloquet lead to 13-6 with 5:51 to play in the first quarter. Less than two minutes later, Pokornowski hit Mitch Gerlach in stride for a 45-yard touchdown strike, making it 20-6 after the point after by Benson.
"We were pretty happy about the Grand Rapids game," Lenarz said. "Turnovers have been an issue for this year and it kept the game closer in the first half than it needed to be, but I am sure Rapids would say the same thing. Overall we responded to some adversity and made some adjustments at halftime that were effective."
After Cloquet went ahead 27-6 on a Maigag seven-yard run just six seconds into the second quarter, the 'Jacks faced exactly the adversity that Lenarz was talking about. Holm rambled 12 yards for a score and Ethan Panschyshyn slipped into the end zone from five yards away, cutting the Cloquet lead to 27-21 at halftime.
The second half saw Cloquet go from a throwing game to more of a ground game led by Wehr, Gerlach and Markus Pokornowski, who came in after an injury to Maigag's leg in the first half.
"We knew Grand Rapids would be physical up front and they were," Lenarz said. "We felt like there were some things we could exploit with the passing game if they continued to use the same scheme against us that they had been using early in the year and I think they took some chances defensively that didn't work out for them."
The first score of the third quarter was a Tim Pokornowski 34-yard touchdown strike to Josh Bushey. That was followed by Gerlach scoring on a seven-yard scramble, making it 42-21 after a Benson kick for the extra point and a Wehr conversion run.
Before the third quarter ended, Grand Rapids had cut the lead to 42-28, but the 'Jacks scored on a Markus Pokornowski 10-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter to make the final 49-28 after Benson kicked for the extra point.
Cloquet rolled up 431 yards of offense with Grand Rapids putting up 289 yards on the Cloquet defense.
"I was a little surprised they put up 28 points on us, but some of that was the offense putting our defense in bad situations, and some of it was just Grand Rapids making some plays," said Lenarz. "This is what we need at this point. We need teams to test us and see how we respond."
Cloquet's response in the second half was to outscore the Thunderhawks 22-7 as they relied on their offensive line to set the tone the rest of the way.
"The offensive line has been very good this year in general," Lenarz said. "This is the best year we've had in terms of pass blocking for sure. We have a number of guys who play both ways in this group, and the conditioning that we do is clearly helping them to stay effective late in the game."
Another of many keys to the Cloquet success has been unsung tight end Josh Bushey, who also plays linebacker on defense.
"Josh is a kid who deserves some recognition because of the position he plays," Lenarz said. "He is an outside middle linebacker on defense and rarely comes off the field. He is also an explosive tight end and one of our most physical blockers. He works hard as anyone out there and has had a great couple of weeks."
Defensively the Lumberjacks also had strong games from Rilea Leslie, Tyler Moose, Gerlach, Bushey, John Nelson, Wehr, Jayden Schneberger, Dylan Lauer and Alex Leuzzo, who all had at least three tackles in the game with Leslie, Moose and Gerlach all recording five solo tackles.
On Friday, the Lumberjacks host another formidable opponent in the Proctor Rails, who come in with a 4-1 record a week after the Rails pounded Duluth Denfeld and held the Hunters to just 103 yards of total offense.
Lenarz thinks his players will be ready.
"This group is tough mentally," Lenarz suggested. "They understand the game better than most high school kids I have coached and that helps. They don't panic when things are not going our way."
Cloquet will rely on that mental toughness again on Friday night as they hope to keep their undefeated record intact.