Lumberjacks win section 7AAAA, take aim at state
LINDSTROM, Minn.—With temperatures hovering in the 60s throughout the day and a fire-orange sunset preceding last Friday's unseasonably warm football game in the first week of November, perhaps Tom Lenarz needed a way to cool down.
The Cloquet coach got just that, as his players drenched him with the proverbial Gatorade bucket of water following his Lumberjacks' thrilling 41-27 victory over Princeton in the Section 7AAAA final last week at Chisago Lakes High School.
"They doused me pretty good," said Lenarz, soaking wet in his Cloquet sweatshirt afterward, "but that's fine with me every time."
Lenarz watched his Lumberjacks score every time they had the ball in the second half, avenging a 14-13 halftime deficit en route to earning their school's third state tournament appearance in the past four years.
Cloquet (7-3) now faces Benilde-St. Margaret's (7-3) in a Class AAAA state quarterfinal Friday at 7 p.m. on the same Chisago Lakes artificial turf where they tore up the Tigers for 359 rushing yards and all six of their touchdowns on the ground last week. Four of those scores came following the break, as the Lumberjacks left no doubt about who wanted the title more.
"Our kids just played with a lot of pride that second half," said Lenarz. "They never quit, they played with heart and they executed everything we asked of them. They really took control. I'm really proud of these guys."
The guy who did a load of the work was junior running back Spencer Wehr, who totaled 133 yards on the ground, including 57 on four carries during Cloquet's opening drive that was capped by a 2-yard Evan Pokornowski plunge into the end zone. Wehr, just one of the Lumberjacks' weapons in a multifaceted rushing attack, now has 937 yards and 18 TDs this fall. He added two more scores Friday, followed by an ear-to-ear smile during postgame celebrations.
"It's amazing to be a Lumberjack," said Wehr, after taking plenty of congratulatory cell phone photos with teammates and classmates. "This is just an amazing moment. All of us together, the pictures — this is what it's for.
"This was the dream from the beginning," he continued. "This is the greatest moment of my life."
Wehr is just one of a boatload of juniors who are as efficient as they are skilled. Classmate Aahsan Maigag, to counter Wehr's power, provides plenty of hole-bursting speed. Maigag entered last week with 699 yards, and added 110 more on just 11 attempts that night.
Don't forget about Mitchell Gerlach, as well. The fast-footed junior gave the Lumberjacks a lead they would never lose when he sprinted past a pack of Tigers to make things 27-20 late in the third quarter. Not finished, Gerlach intercepted a deep past from Princeton quarterback Damon Rademacher with 3:32 remaining, effectively ending the Tigers’ hope for a win.
"We were going to go for two," said Princeton coach Roy Hanenburg afterward, had his squad scored instead of being intercepted. "We were not going to make it in overtime. I just knew we couldn't stop them."
Overcoming leads of 14-13 at halftime and 20-19 at the end of the third, Cloquet seemed confident throughout, sticking to its ground-and-pound game plan.
"They got busy up front and pushed us off the ball," Hanenburg continued, crediting the joyous Lumberjacks across the field. "They're a good football team and did everything they needed to win. They made more plays than we did."
Princeton (4-7) was paced by do-it-all running back Tim Bialka, a shifty senior who amassed 159 yards on 31 tries, including 95 in the first half. The bell cow carrier centered the Tigers from start to finish, but it wasn't enough for the near-perfect second-half Lumberjacks.
"I knew we could do this," said the senior Pokornowski — who is big brother to junior quarterback Tim Pokornowski — as he posed for a picture with the section trophy just moments before. "Nobody ever carried their heads down."
Evan Pokornowski, who scored the game's first and last touchdowns on a three-score night he'll never forget, was a part of Cloquet's last state tournament team in 2014. That year ended with a 55-21 quarterfinal defeat to DeLaSalle on the same Chisago Lakes artificial turf.
This time around, facing the Red Knights, Pokornowski and Co. are hoping for different results.
"I really hope we bring it," he said. "Win or lose, I love these guys."
"Survive and advance," added Wehr.
Lenarz was more thorough, noting they see Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a private school based out of St. Louis Park, Minn., each summer at camp held by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He said the Red Knights are a "tremendous team," yet was quick to follow that his boys could surely give them a run.
"From my standpoint, we have as good a chance as anyone," said Lenarz. "These guys made this a goal of theirs, and I'm hoping they want to keep playing for a while."
If so, Lenarz better bring two sweatshirts, as the water will come again.
IF YOU GO
Who: Cloquet vs. Benilde-St. Margaret's
What: Class AAAA State Football Quarterfinal
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11
Where: Chisago Lakes High School, Lindstrom, Minn.
This state session sees a pair equal-recorded schools square off when the Lumberjacks (7-3) wrangle with the Red Knights (7-3) in a public-versus-private school affair.
Cloquet is in their third state appearance in the past four seasons, while BSM, a private school based in St. Louis Park, Minn., is making a return trip.
The last time Lumberjacks were in this position in 2014, they fell to DeLaSalle 51-22 — on the same artificial turf at Chisago Lakes. They are hoping for different results Friday.
The winner moves on to next Thursday's state semifinal at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 17at the Minnesota Vikings' new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Radio: WKLK 1230 AM
Quotable: "They're a tremendous team, there's no doubt about it — one of the favorites in 4A," said Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz of the Red Knights. "But you’ve got to beat them sometime, so hopefully we come ready to give them a run."