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Tall task proves too much for Cloquet

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MINNEAPOLIS—Cloquet faced a tall task when pitted against Holy Family Catholic in the ’Jacks’ first state boys basketball tournament in 14 years last Wednesday, .

The third-seeded Fire — with nine players standing 6-foot-2 or taller — used their height advantage to top the unseeded Lumberjacks 63-41 in last week’s Class AAA quarterfinal at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

Cloquet (24-5), making its eighth overall state appearance and first since 2000, scored the game’s first basket when senior Dillon Johnson swished a top-of-the-key 3-pointer to send a “whited-out” Lumberjack student section into a noticeable roar.

However, Holy Family Catholic (29-3) — a privately based school in Victoria, Minn. — didn’t take long to find a groove.

Fire senior Joe Hanel, a savvy 6-6 forward, scored 14 points, including an easy left-baseline two-handed slam in the first half to ignite a 14-0 run and 34-21 halftime lead.

Hanel followed 6-11 center Justin Dahl’s 15 points inside for a team that eventually placed third on Saturday, while Johnson led Cloquet with 15 and classmate Adam Laine had 13 for a Northland squad highly credited by their metro opposition.

“In no way, shape or form were we looking past them,” said Holy Family Catholic Coach Matt Thuli of the Lumberjacks afterward. “We have had a tough schedule, but they are right in the mix with the teams that we have played.”

Cloquet played to within 36-28 on a Laine free throw with 14:25 remaining, but never got any closer to the Fire’s lead.

“We duked it out, went punch-for-punch with them for a bit there — their length just got to us,” said Cloquet Coach Steve Battaglia. “They were big everywhere. It just wore us down.”

The teary-eyed Lumberjacks had little to be down about in the defeat, Battaglia said, noting they won the Lake Superior Conference title outright for the first time in three decades. On top of winning the section and advancing to state, the team created quite a buzz.

“Throw in the school’s all-time leading scorer [in Laine] and that’s a heck of a year,” he said. “As a [senior] class, they took the bull by the horns and turned around this program.”

“I’m sad it’s over, but it’s a proud moment in my life,” said Johnson, who stayed — along with his teammates — until Saturday to watch all of the championship games. “It’s been a great ride.”

His classmates, including six graduating seniors, agreed.

“It was surreal,” said Jake Bushey about playing at State with his closest friends. “We’re all so close, kind of like a family.”

“No one person wanted it more than the other,” Laine said.

“This was something all of us will remember the rest of our lives,” Maxx Brenner said. “The lights, they were so bright.”