LARGE SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS: As Cloquet concludes playoffs, Eskomos begin


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Cloquet quarterback Jeb Leone is pestered by the relentless North Branch Vikings defense during Tuesday night's playoff matchup. Dan Saletel/Pine Journal


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Esko tight end Ryan Schramm catches the ball in the opening game of the season against Cloquet this year. Jamie Lund/




CLOQUET—After playing in what would be his final high school football game Tuesday, Cloquet quarterback Jeb Leone was the last player to walk off of Rol Bromberg Field.

But behind his reddened eyes and slow steps were the lasting memories he’ll never forget.

Leone was a part of two Lumberjack state tournament teams, but couldn’t add a third, as two-time defending Section 7AAAA champion Cloquet was upended by visiting North Branch 27-9 on a brisk playoff opener Tuesday in Cloquet.

The fourth-seeded Lumberjacks (3-6) actually jumped the fifth-seeded Vikings (2-7) when a tiebreaker scenario occurred in the Quality Results Formula playoff rankings last Saturday, but come Tuesday night on the field, North Branch debunked those theories by scoring early and never trailing.

The Vikings, which now face unbeaten and top-seeded Hermantown in a 6 p.m. semifinal Saturday in Hermantown, were guided Tuesday by Brandon Miller’s pair of 62- and 10-yard first-quarter touchdown runs, as he rushed for 85 yards on six carries, while Cody Segelstrom added six sacks.

“We made some big plays today and felt that we had a good shot,” Vikings coach Sam Ferraro said.

North Branch, which played a much bigger schedule than Cloquet, including a number of Class AAAAA schools, led 20-2 at halftime and saw that dwindle to 20-9 following a 48-yard scamper by Leone, a senior captain, in the third quarter.

But a Leone interception turned into Kennedy Ashley’s second Vikings TD of the night, when he returned it for six in the fourth. The costly turnover took the wind out of Cloquet’s sails, but was only a small sample in a year of mishaps.

“It’s kind of been the story of our season; we get on a roll and then one or two missed assignments,” said Lumberjacks coach Tom Lenarz. “Certainly there were times when we had chances [tonight], but in the end, we just made more mistakes and they capitalized. That’s how the game is.”

Far from disappointed in his group afterward, Lenarz stuck around the end zone following the final team huddle and consoled his group of teary-eyed seniors. He said there were 18, all of whom have helped the program flourish.

Including Leone, who will always cherish his memories.

“It’s been an honor,” Leone said. “I’ll remember this place the rest of my life. I’ll come back to watch every year.”

Esko (6-2) on the other hand, which beat Cloquet 48-6 in a season-opening game shortened by weather Aug. 22, is seeded second in Section 7AAA, behind only Proctor (5-3), and received a first-round bye.

While the Eskomos have a better record, Proctor’s schedule was more difficult. Therefore, Proctor’s Quality Results Formula rating was rated third in the state and Esko’s 14th, hence the team’s postseason seedings.

Numbers, rankings and ratings aside, this time of year comes down to “playing football and making plays,” said longtime Esko coach Bill Hudspith. That’s why, although the Rails and Eskomos may be smart picks to meet in the Oct. 22 final, Hudspith isn’t making any premature predictions.

“It’s do-or-die — if you lose, you’re done,” said Hudspith, whose team plays in Saturday’s 2 p.m. semifinal against No. 3 Two Harbors, who blanked visiting Virginia 56-0 on Tuesday.

The Eskomos, the reigning champs, are keyed by standout Jaxson Turner and a bevy of other talented seniors. They beat Two Harbors 34-20 on Aug. 28, but it’s now irrelevant.

“It’s been a fun year, we have a lot of explosive kids,” Hudspith said. “Hopefully we play pretty well on Saturday. We’re going to have to, otherwise our season could be over.”

KORBY’S CALL: To be honest, 7AAAA is a no-brainer — the Hawks. At 52.6 points per game, Hermantown, ranked fourth in the final state polls, is the highest scoring team in the state, and I see nobody slowing them down. 7AAA will be interesting, as Proctor and Esko should meet for all the marbles, as always. Expect a thriller. Both teams can keep scoreboard operators busy. In the end, however, Esko’s speed — especially on turf — will be too much for the Rails.