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Lumberjacks, Hawks headed to 7AAA final

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As a cornerback for Cloquet’s state-qualifying football team last fall, Nate Weets is no stranger to playing defense.

Scoring just nine points in a Section 7AAA boys basketball semifinal Tuesday, Weets helped pinpoint the Lumberjacks’ 2-3 zone defense in their 66-40 victory over North Branch at Hibbing Memorial Arena.

Weets, a 5-foot-10 junior point guard, rotated well atop Cloquet’s consistent defensive effort on a team now set for Thursday’s 7 p.m. championship with Hermantown — scheduled at Duluth East High School.

The Lumberjacks (23-4) schooled the Vikings from the opening tip, scoring early and often, while their stymying strategy on defense seemingly allowed no access to the basket against a team they had barely beat 52-48 Feb. 8.

On Tuesday, top-seeded Cloquet controlled its way to a 26-11 halftime lead, never looking back in a 26-point win led by seven Lumberjack scorers, including Adam Laine, Dillon Johnson and Jake Bushey with 16, 13 and 10 points, respectively.

“This was as close to perfect as we could play [defensively],” Cloquet Coach Steve Battaglia said on the bus ride home late Tuesday after watching the third-seeded Hawks (19-9) dethrone six-time defending section champion Grand Rapids 53-47 in the night’s other semifinal.

Thursday night’s all-Lake Superior Conference final will be a must-see matchup, as in the Lumberjacks’ and Hawks’ previous three meetings, two have needed additional minutes — including double-overtime in last year’s postseason — while only five combined points separated all of the scores.

“It should be a duke-it-out to the end,” Battaglia said.

“We’re not real fond of each other,” added Mason Brenner, who was a linebacker on the Cloquet football team that eliminated Hermantown last November en route to State.

Brenner’s older brother, Maxx — who was the quarterback in that same game — noted the Hawks will be hungry Thursday.

“They’ll probably want a little revenge for what we did to them on their field,” he said. “It’s just going to be a battle.”

Hibbing Coach Joel McDonald, whose Bluejackets were eliminated last Friday by Cloquet, thinks Battaglia has his team ripe to make the Lumberjacks’ first state tournament trip since 2000.

“He’s been very close,” McDonald said last week. “I see them with an edge, simply with their size and perimeter play.”

And their defense, assisted by the cornerback-playing point guard Weets, is now seeking state again this school year.

“Not many people can say that,” Weets said if they would win on Thursday. “I wouldn’t forget it for my whole life.”