Oh, so close
MINNEAPOLIS—Odds are, if you were to tell Tom Lenarz that his Cloquet football team would have created five turnovers in Friday's Prep Bowl XXXVI, the coach would have liked his team's chances.
Turned out, those chances were there, but the results were not.
Not only did the Lumberjacks fail to take advantage of Holy Angels Academy Stars' five giveaways, but Cloquet tallied its own quintet of turnovers when falling 14-0 in the Class AAAA championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Playing in the school's first title tilt since a 14-13 overtime loss to White Bear Lake in 1976, Cloquet was seeking to be the first northeastern Minnesota school to win it all among the larger classifications since Eveleth did it in 1973.
A first-half interception in the end zone and four fumbles following halftime didn't help the cause.
Still, recovering two fumbles and picking off Stars' quarterback Joseph Heimbold three times themselves, Cloquet had its shots in a game featuring the smallest schools in the class. The Lumberjacks defense was especially strong.
"Both teams made some mistakes. They capitalized and we didn't," said Lenarz, back in the big game for the first time since he won a Prep Bowl title playing for Blaine, Minn., in 1988. "They just made a couple of more plays than we did."
One of those plays was when Heimbold hit senior Ryan Mazurek down the right sideline on a third-and-20 play that turned into a 46-yard score and a 7-0 lead.
Mazurek did his best Randy Moss impression at the home of the Minnesota Vikings, when he leapt over Cloquet's Riley Leslie and his seemingly airtight coverage in the first quarter.
"I knew he could make a play," said Heimbold of Mazurek, wearing all smiles afterward with his blue title medal.
The closest play the Lumberjacks came to scoring happened not long after, but it was quarterback Tim Pokornowski's pass attempt from the Holy Angels' 9-yard line that was intercepted by the Stars' Keontay Shorter. It was just many of occasions where Holy Angels showed off its swift defense.
"We have a saying that speed kills, and we try to roll with that," said Stars lineman Alex Gillard, who had 10 tackles.
"It was hard to get a seam and really go anywhere," said Cloquet senior Aahsan Maigag, admitting Holy Angels was the fastest team that he and the Lumberjacks had faced all season.
Both teams were fast to give the ball away. While the second quarter included three turnovers, so did the third and fourth. Among all of this swapping, Cloquet trailed just 7-0 at the break, still very much alive for all the marbles and on a quest for a first-ever football title for a school founded 120 years ago.
A Mitchell Gerlach fumble helped kickstart a Holy Angels drive capped by Thomas Shelstad's 1-yard TD plunge.
That 14-0 advantage held, as another promising Cloquet drive later failed when Pokornowski's fourth-down pass from the Stars' 5-yard line was deflected in the Lumberjacks' last gasp.
"We put ourselves in position to get back in it, but we just couldn't finish," Lenarz said.
For the seniors on the team, the game capped a remarkable Lumberjacks career, Lenarz noted.
"This group didn't lose a game from seventh through ninth grade or as sophomores on the JV team," he said. "Their first loss was last year as part of the varsity (which had a 7-4 record and also won the 7AAAA section but lost in the state quarterfinal)."
For Holy Angels (12-1), it was the first prep football championship for the Richfield-based private Catholic school.
Not to be outdone, Cloquet finished its season 12-1 and did something this small northern town hadn't done in 41 years. Supported by thousands of purple-clad fans last week, saying the Lumberjacks ignited their community may be an understatement.
"These guys have been warriors the entire year," Lenarz said. "I'd go to battle with these guys any day."
A teary-eyed Tyler Moose said he and his senior classmates have been playing together since the third grade.
"This team meant a lot," said Moose, who had an interception, along with juniors Leslie and Alex Leuzzo.
Senior lineman Bryce Turnbull — named Most Valuable Teammate for Cloquet — led all Lumberjacks with nine tackles. Seniors Gerlach and Dylan Lauer added eight.
"It's been a great ride," Pokornowski, a senior, said.
"It's a bittersweet moment," senior Jayden Schneberger said of his last game. "Second place isn't a bad finish at all."