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Rapids overpowers CEC in bid for state berth

The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team needed one last miracle on Saturday to overcome a strong Grand Rapids team in the Section 7AA title game. Instead, the Thunderhawks used a superior physical presence to down the Jacks 3-1 and end a season...

The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team needed one last miracle on Saturday to overcome a strong Grand Rapids team in the Section 7AA title game. Instead, the Thunderhawks used a superior physical presence to down the Jacks 3-1 and end a season that started with much promise.

"It was a tough way to go out," said Dave Esse coach of the Jacks. "Our guys had to overcome so much through the year, but we just couldn't get it started against Grand Rapids."

It appeared early that the Jacks would have the upper hand when Ryan Defoe scored a goal from the right wing that eluded Thunderhawk goaltender Reider Jenson. The goal, coming at 3:25 of the first period, was assisted by Sever Lundquist and Austin Hatch.

"I thought once we got that goal that it would maybe jump start us," explained Esse. "Instead they got things going and then when Reid (Ellingson) got run over and they got the goal to tie it, I knew it was going to be a tough road."

Grand Rapids' first goal was caused when CEC netminder Reid Ellingson was hit before the puck made its way into the crease and replays showed Ellingson having to battle a player to try and make the save. Instead, the goal, scored by Matt Alstad, counted with Matt Welliver assisting at 13:18 of the first period.

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"They were very physical and their physical play and, in my opinion, some lack of calls dictated the game," mentioned Esse. "They were running at us from all over the ice and every time our guys touched the puck they hit us. It was a continual outright running at our players and the lack of penalties being called made it difficult. I am very disappointed that we didn't respond as a team."

The second period was all Grand Rapids as they were led by the strong physical play of Division I recruit Joe Stejskal. Stejskal, a senior defenseman, set the tone for the period by continually making the CEC forwards pay for coming into the Grand Rapids defensive zone.

"He was a very big presence on the ice for them," commented Esse. "I give Grand Rapids a ton of credit. They stepped up on us and they shot everything on net. As a team you feed on big hits and aggressiveness and Stejskal gave them that presence."

The go-ahead and game winning goal came when CEC made a line change at an inopportune time, allowing the Thunderhawks to come in 4-on-2 on Ellingson with Stejskal finishing off the play in the high slot. Stejskal's goal came at 2:44 with Jason Makinen and Patrick White assisting on the goal.

"We just didn't do the fundamentals well," Esse remarked. "We didn't catch passes, we didn't make good passes and you can't do that against a good team like Grand Rapids and, again, you have to give them credit because a lot of what we couldn't do was because of them."

The Thunderhawks finished off the scoring with White getting a goal at 3:14 of the third period on a strong play out of the corner and to Ellingson's right, making it 3-1.

Despite the loss the Jacks finished a successful season in which they went 22-4-2.

"I am so proud of the team and the outstanding season they've had. One game does not define the season," stated Esse. "I commend these guys because I've truly never been part of a team that has had to overcome so much adversity with injuries and illness. It is a tribute to our staff and to the players for what they were able to achieve."

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The Jacks overcame the loss of five players to injuries at mid-season. At a point where most teams would have folded and finished on a low note, the Lumberjacks pulled together and still made the section title game for the third year in a row.

"I talked with coaches who felt that after all the injuries we had that our season was over," said Esse. "It says a lot about the leadership of this group and the heart that they could overcome and nearly make it to the state tournament."

Esse's teams are based on a team concept of discipline and respect, and this year's Jacks probably showed that as well as any team in the past. Faced with the loss of key players, the team needed to pull as many as six junior varsity players up to the varsity late in the season and expected them to step in and play key roles.

"As coaches we get to look forward to next year, but we have nine seniors who have played a big part of this team who are graduating and won't be back," explained Esse. "You feel bad for them because this was their last chance to get to the state tournament."

Pine Journal sports reporter Kerry Rodd can be contacted at: kdrodd@aol.com .

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