Rebels roll over Bombers in first football playoff clash
ESKO—With its field surrounded by snow and ice chunks a couple of feet high last Saturday afternoon, Esko Stadium looked rather fitting for the Eskomo's igloo logo at midfield.
A number of volunteers with several ATVs and plenty of shovels helped clear the artificial turf from the recent snowfall. Players and coaches stood on the sideline snowbanks and up the ice-coated bleachers, as northern Minnesota winter gear was put to an early test.
Unless your name is Dave Louzek.
Donning a blue and red Moose Lake-Willow River football sweatshirt along with a turtleneck, the Rebels' longtime football coach sported his customary khaki shorts, despite temperatures hovering around freezing during their Section 7AA semifinal clash with rival Barnum.
"I don't own a pair of pants to coach in," Louzek said in all seriousness.
Saturday was a serious day of football, featuring a quartet of prep games beginning at 10 a.m. and finishing not long before 10 p.m. Matchups included eight teams in four classes, including the Rebels and Bombers, who were not only playing for ownership of the neighboring schools' traveling Little Brown Jug, but for the first time ever in the football postseason.
Behind three touchdowns from Anakin Oswald and a 90-yard fumble return by Ryan Barrett, ML-WR took any drama out of this one with a 48-6 win to advance to yet another section final.
The third-seeded Rebels (5-5) have won 11 of the past 12 Section 7AA crowns. The only time they didn't was last season, when their young cast was ousted in the opening round by Rush City. Royalton went on to claim the title, and now the top seed Royals (8-1) will look to defend their section crown at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Thursday Nov. 2, again in Esko.
That certainly won't be an easy task against Louzek's boys. Having now won three games in a row, ML-WR is playing its best football at the right time of the year, something the coach — now his 19th season — is known to preach each season.
"From week one I tell the kids, it's all about the playoffs," Louzek said. "The wins and losses in the regular-season don't matter, as long as we're getting better each week. Everybody remembers your playoff run. And these kids are putting it together at the right time."
Saturday, the Rebels raced to a 26-0 halftime lead behind two TD plunges from Oswald, a 57-yard burst from Colton Little and Barrett's game-turning scoop and score that made things 14-0, but did more damage to Barnum's confidence than on the scoreboard.
"You give [ML-WR] an opportunity and they're going to take advantage of it," Bombers coach Mike Klyve said of the play. "The momentum swung there and we had a hard time finding any way to get it back."
"I saw the ball come out, Ryan scoop it up and just take off," Oswald said just before going to take pictures with the jug. "That was a big momentum change for us."
Oswald, who ran for 70 of ML-WR's 450 yards, added his third score in the final quarter, while Trent Juhl — who added 185 yards on the ground — and Jeremiah Weidendorf also found the end zone in the half. In a class act by Klyve, so did Bo Moffett, as the Rebel junior with special needs ran in a two-point conversion with 53 seconds to go.
Danny Lilya, a paraplegic helped on and off of the field in his wheelchair, also held on all of five of ML-WR's kick attempts.
Lilya, a Rebel junior, also had the rare chance to face off against his older brother, Barnum senior Michael Lilya, in a football family feud of sorts on Saturday.
"I don't know how many families get to see son vs. son in a playoff football game," father Dan Lilya told the Duluth News Tribune earlier in the week.
Oswald also clashed with his step-brother, Bomber sophomore Mason Calhoun, in a rivalry of relatives. Afterward, Oswald noted they gave each other much-deserved respects.
"Barnum is five minutes away from us. We know pretty much their whole roster and they know ours," Oswald said. "It's a different atmosphere when we play them."
Jacob Nynas scored the lone touchdown for Barnum, which finished 7-3 after just winning one game over the previous two seasons combined.
A turnaround like that kept Klyve saying nothing but positives afterward.
"With the body of work these guys put together, I couldn't be prouder," said the third-year coach, who was also wearing khaki shorts in the cold. "These guys showed a lot of heart in a lot of places. I love these guys.
"The goal every year is to win a section championship and we came up a little short here," Klyve continued, "but we'll be back at it next year and hopefully get another crack at these guys."
Eskomos pass up Titans, advance to final
Prior to the Rebels' romp, Esko eased by Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin in what was expected to be a battle of defenses after these two combined for 13 points back on Sept. 15.
Following the 76 points these two put up on the brisk Saturday, clearly the Eskomos and Titans didn't get the memo.
Brendan Durand threw for 149 yards and four touchdowns as Esko dethroned the defending section champs 48-28 and earned a spot across from Proctor in the Section 7AAA final at 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday Nov. 2, at UMD's Malosky Stadium.
Although completing just six passes, four of them were in the end zone for Durand, as well as a pair of 42- and 26-yard tosses to fellow senior Brandon Matteen.
"He's a great athlete and finds ways to get open for me," said Durand of his close friend and ultra-athletic Matteen, often seen spinning, weaving and bursting away from defenders on Saturday. "We've got some good chemistry. We click a lot."
As do all of the Eskomos, a team which has won eight straight and hasn't tasted defeat in 63 days.
That was evident Saturday, as top-seeded Esko (8-1) eased away from a 21-14 lead with three consecutive scores to close the second quarter and begin the third. Esko's Tyler Peterson, Aaron Moore and Dawson Hoffmann all scored on the day.
"They had more weapons on the field than we did," GNK coach Bob Schwartz told the DNT afterward.
"We like to score touchdowns; go big or go home," added Matteen. "Right now, I think we're running on all three cylinders."
As the second-seeded Rails (7-2) loom, Esko coach Scott Arntson was quick to note his boys need to keep at it.
"We have more work to do," said Arntson, not fast to jump to any conclusions. "Proctor is not going to give you any big plays and we like big plays. We're going to have to be patient, take what we can and play good, fundamental football.
"Esko and Proctor always seem to meet up," he continued. "And we're going to have a challenge on Thursday."
Wrens respond to early wake-up call with energy
Like most teenagers, Tyler Kelley admitted it can be a challenge for him to wake up in the morning.
Yet, watching the Wrenshall senior play football Saturday morning, one would never know.
After a 10 a.m. kickoff on a field surrounded by chunks of ice, Kelley needed less than a minute to score, when the Wrenshall superstar snagged Ricky Baker's pass and took it 36 yards for a touchdown.
"He made a good read," Wrenshall coach Jeremy Zywicki said of the play that kick-started their 54-12 victory over Floodwood last weekend. "He's a heck of a football player for us and he played great today."
Did he ever. Along with his pick-six, Kelley counted 199 yards rushing and four more scores, including a pair of TD runs and 11- and 27-yard scoring passes via the arm of teammate Randy Wimmer. The sophomore Wimmer also tore off a 77-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, seemingly never touched.
Wrenshall (8-2), seeded second, never trailed against the Polar Bears, scoring the opening 21 points and marking their second consecutive victory.
Their last loss came at the hands of top-seeded Cromwell-Wright, the section's defending champs and second ranked Nine-Man team in state, when they fell 39-8 in Wrenshall just 15 days ago. The two will meet for the Section 5 final at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, again at Esko.
The unbeaten Cardinals (10-0) were 34-22 winners over South Ridge last Saturday night in Cromwell. More than a dozen parents helped clear their town's field with coach Jeff Gronner last Saturday morning.
Wrenshall's parents, meanwhile, were as excited as bundled-up fans could be, watching their Wrens last weekend. Plenty of "oohs" and "aahs" were heard, as the public address announcer was often caught saying: "That's another Wrenshall Wrens first down."
For the first time since 2014, the Wrens are playing for the title. That year, they again ran into Cromwell-Wright, in eventual defeat.
This time around, however, with the likes of Tyler Kelley and his younger brother, Jared — both signature backs — the Wrens are confident with their rematch opportunity Friday.
Asked of what it will take to win and advance to their first state tournament in recent memory?
"It's a secret," Tyler Kelley said with a grin. "It's going to be a good game. I'm looking forward to it."
IF YOU GO
Section 7AAA Championship Game:
Esko vs. Proctor
7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2
at Malosky Stadium, UMD
Listen at WKLK 96.5 FM
Section 7AA Championship Game:
ML-WR vs. Royalton
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2
at Esko Stadium
Listen at WMOZ 106.9 FM
Section 5 9-MAN Championship Game:
Cromwell-Wright vs. Wrenshall
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3
at Esko Stadium
Listen at WKLK 96.5 FM