One season ago, the Esko football team was 2-8 under first-year coach Scott Arntson. This season, the Eskomos reversed that record, but it wasn't quite enough in the end.
The Eskomos fell 24-14 to Proctor in the Section 7AAA championship game Thursday, Nov. 2, at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. As one may expect, the loss hurt.
"It was emotional," Arntson said. "This is such a good group of kids, and they have come such a long way. It's hard to end that way."
Proctor built a 17-0 lead in the first half, and Derek Parendo's Rails team was making a difference in individual matchups.
"We try to focus on one-to-one matchups that we can exploit and against Proctor, we couldn't do that," Arntson said. "They matched up with us athletically, and that made it hard for us. We tried to do some things to counter it, with limited success."
Trailing 17-0 in the fourth quarter, Esko's no-huddle offense finally came to life.
"We got to the line and called some plays there," Arntson said. "It worked sometimes. Other times, it didn't."
But it got Esko back into the game. Quarterback Brendan Durand hit Sam Dupuis from 9 yards out early in the fourth quarter to get Esko on the board, and then Branden Mateen hauled a Proctor punt back 68 yards for a score to get Esko within 17-14 with 7:29 to play.
But the Rails had one more drive in them, with John Pioro scoring his third touchdown of the game, capping a 45-yard drive and giving Proctor a 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
Arntson elected to place any blame for the defeat on himself after the game.
"I need to put these players in better position to win," he said. "These kids accomplished so much this season, and they deserved that. I think we played a good game, played hard, but we need to put them in positions where they can succeed as coaches, and I didn't do that."
Arntson's mea culpa notwithstanding, there was an awful lot to smile about this season.
"The kids bought-in," he said, paying special notice to his team's 20 seniors. "It took some time to get the players to buy into what we are trying to do on both sides of the ball, and they did that. They deserved better, perhaps, but we put ourselves in the position to do something great."
That it didn't happen was disappointing on more than one front to Arntson.
"We were close," he said. "But, this is such a good group of young men. That makes it hurt a bit more."
Despite losing 20 seniors, Arntson noted that his team is growing in terms of youth development.
"Right now, the seventh-graders who were here when I took over are freshmen this year. They've had two years in the system we are teaching," he said. "They needed to learn how we wanted them to play.
"I look at the kids at our youth level and they're being really coached," he added. "We have such commitment all the way through our system, right down to the junior high, that it's going to pay dividends."
And while the sting is lasting for the varsity having fallen at the last hurdle, Arntson is determined to see his players grow from the experience.
"We got a lot better as the season progressed," Arntson said. "Cloquet hit us pretty hard in the first game of the season. The two games after that were tough. But we stuck with it, and we grew from it. I think that will help us next season."