’Jacks fell Vikings, aim for section championship
Statistics can tell a lot about a football game. On Saturday the Cloquet Lumberjacks defeated the North Branch Vikings 34-13 in a Section 7AAAA quarterfinal game and the stats bear out the fact that Cloquet was the superior football team.
Cloquet had more rushing yards, more total offense, more first downs. They more than doubled the time of possession and they also easily won the turnover battle to secure their spot in the section championship game Friday night against Princeton. Cloquet’s offensive attack was balanced and gave the Vikings trouble all game long.
“We have made being more balanced a priority this year,” said Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz. “Having a balanced attack is only possible when you have a quarterback that can make reads and throw the ball accurately. Tim Pokornowski has done a great job of doing those things this year. He takes care of the ball and I am confident in his decision making and he seems to get better each week.”
The opening drive of the game by North Branch stalled out when the Cloquet defense stiffened and held, causing the Vikings to punt to the Cloquet 35-yard line. After back-to-back running plays, Cloquet quarterback Tim Pokornowski found Aahsan Maigag running free over the middle of the field on a 25-yard pass and run that gave Cloquet a first down at the North Branch 19-yard line. A couple of plays later Pokornowski bulled his way into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run. Noah Niemi added the extra point kick and 6:21 into the first quarter the Jacks went up 7-0.
Cloquet added a second score early in the second quarter when Pokornowski hooked up with tight end Joshua Bushey on a drag route across the middle for an 18-yard touchdown pass that pushed the Lumberjacks lead to 13-0 with 9:22 remaining in the first half. The drive was kept alive when Maigag raced 42 yards for a first down from deep in Cloquet territory and then North Branch picked up a 15-yard penalty for a block below the knees.
“Those first two drives were critical to get off to a good start in the game,” explained Lenarz. “We have struggled in the first half offensively the last three to four weeks and it has cost us. In the playoffs, especially in high school football, momentum is a big deal. When you can put some points up on the board first it gives the whole team a boost.”
Before the half was complete the ’Jacks were able to add another score when Spencer Wehr smashed into the end zone from a yard out and Noah Niemi added an extra point kick to make it 20-0.
A huge key to the Lumberjacks success in moving the ball was an offensive line that has finally gotten healthy.
“We have dealt with injuries with the line all year long and it is a credit to guys like Dylan Lauer, Kaleb Sandy and Trent Russell because they were able to help the replacement players through those times,” suggested Lenarz. “Now that we are back to full strength we feel like we can use the full offense and execute better under pressure.”
After a scoreless third quarter, Cloquet scored with 8:46 remaining in the fourth quarter when Wehr slipped into the end zone from 5 yards away. Again Niemi booted the extra point to make it 27-0 in favor of Cloquet.
Facing a do-or-die type of situation, the Vikings went into a hurry-up offense and had Cloquet on its heels. Aaron Robillard, a slick-throwing quarterback for North Branch, lobbed a pass to lanky wide receiver Darien Fair for an 8-yard touchdown strike with 4:43 left in the fourth quarter to cut the gap to 27-7 after the extra point kick. North Branch added another quick score when Micah Hindt bulled his way into the end zone to make the score 27-13, but then the ’Jacks took over and regained the momentum.
“We wore them down on Saturday and I felt we were really able to take control of the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter,” Lenarz said. “In my opinion this speaks to our conditioning and the weight program in the summer and during the season. We have worked hard with the guys at Impact Sports for several years now and they do such a good job with our kids.”
Cloquet closed out the scoring after Tyler Moose made a great play and intercepted Robillard and returned the ball all the way back to the Vikings 21-yard line. A few plays later Maigag rolled around the left side of the line for an easy touchdown, putting the lead at 34-13 after the Niemi extra point.
“Turnovers are everything in high school football,” Lenarz said after the Moose interception. “The game is so short and when you only get the ball seven to 10 times, giving it away is a huge advantage to the other team.”
The ’Jacks now move into the Section 7AAAA championship game in Lindstrom on Friday where they will play Princeton, the team that eliminated Hermantown Saturday night.
“Princeton will be a challenge on Friday,” Lenarz said. “They are a more physical team than North Branch and more explosive on offense. It will be a fun game and playing on the turf should allow for athletes on both teams to make plays.”