Opening-round bye gives 'Jacks, Esko time to rest
FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS ROUNDUP
The section football playoffs kicked off Tuesday night across the Northland, but the top seed in Section 7AAAA, the Cloquet Lumberjacks, were on the sidelines waiting with a first-round bye after delivering an undefeated regular season to their fans.
Next up? The Hermantown Hawks who defeated Hibbing in the first round Tuesday night.
The Lumberjacks head into Saturday's contest against Hermantown with an undefeated 8-0 record and are the favorites to head back to the state football tournament.
"Obviously, 8-0 is fun and there are a lot of things we can point to that are positive," Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz said. "I have been impressed by the team's commitment to each other and the willingness to work. They come with energy every day and it has been fun for us as coaches to watch them grow together."
The 'Jacks come in with a potent offense and a stingy defense that make for a tough combination for their opponents.
Leading Cloquet on offense is quarterback Tim Pokornowski, but his offensive line has been strong at opening up holes and giving the senior a chance to pass.
Joining Pokornowski in the skill positions are fullback Spencer Wehr and running backs Aahsan Maigag, Mitchell Gerlach and Markus Pokornowski. That group also has a handful of other talented players who have been able to relieve them when needed and give the 'Jacks plenty of options.
"We have been tested this year in various phases of the game and they have risen to the occasion each time," Lenarz said. "The work they put in to prepare themselves for the season physically has clearly paid off."
Cloquet's toughest opponents this season have been North Branch and Proctor. North Branch, the No. 2 seed in the section, had a strong second half, and the 'Jacks had to hang on to win the game.
Against Proctor, the No. 2 seed in Section 7AAA, the Lumberjacks pulled away in the second half to take the win.
"I like having the bye week because it allows the kids to get some rest and if guys are dinged up we can get them a few days of rest," Lenarz said. "Taking off the whole MEA weekend allows for them to recharge their batteries and come back ready to get after it."
North Branch had a strong run during the season, but lost to both Cloquet and then Proctor from Section 7AAA on the final week of the regular season. Rounding out the seeding in AAAA were Grand Rapids at No. 3; Hibbing, No. 4; Hermantown, No. 5; and Duluth Denfeld, No. 6.
When the 'Jacks hook up Saturday afternoon against Hermantown, it will be a rematch of the final game of the regular season, which Cloquet won on the road 42-6 on homecoming night for the Hawks. Game time is 2 p.m. Saturday at Rol Bromberg Field in Cloquet.
Louis St. George/Forum News Service
Esko Coach Scott Arntson, in his second season as Bill Hudspith's replacement, has seen his team take off in the second half of the season.
"Last year and early this year, it hadn't really ever looked like I wanted it to look," Arntson said last week. "I had a vision in my mind, but it just hadn't been clicking. It's getting there."
Just in time for the postseason.
Esko is averaging 35.6 points over its past five games and enters the Section 7AAA playoffs with a 7-1 record — the exact opposite of last fall — and the bracket's top seed. The Eskomos got a first-round bye and will host Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin at 1 p.m. in Saturday's semifinals.
Esko struggled its first three games this season, in a loss to Cloquet and two challenging wins against Two Harbors and GNK (a 7-6 win in which their only TD was a fumble recovery in the end zone).
The "Greatest Show on Turf," this was not.
But, quarterback Branden Durand said, Esko stayed the course. The spread offense is a tricky one to master, especially with a new QB directing traffic. Timing has to be flawless, all the moving parts functioning in lockstep.
The Eskomos eventually figured it out, announcing as much in a 39-15 win at Moose Lake-Willow River on Sept. 22 that snapped their 11-game losing streak against the Rebels.
"Everyone kind of had that belief that we were going to get it done," Durand, a 6-foot-3 senior, said. "We have a group that fights. We don't just give up when things get tough."
Durand, who's thrown for 895 yards and 10 TDs a year after his biggest contributions came on the punt team and holding for extra points, then referenced last week's stirring win over Mora. Esko was up 22-8 in the third quarter before the Mustangs bucked their way to a 38-29 lead. It was not, however, the final rally.
Branden Matteen responded with a 95-yard kickoff return that made it a one-score game, and running back Tyler Peterson went in from 4 yards out to secure a 41-38 victory.
"We're just finding ways to win," said Peterson, a senior who has rushed for 442 yards.
Arntson was confident the Eskomos would realize their offensive potential. He was buoyed by a roster brimming with speed and athleticism. So even during the ragged showing at Two Harbors, a penalty- and turnover-infested contest between section contenders, and again the following week in the rain and fog against GNK, Arntson remained optimistic.
Sure enough, the offense began to gel. Players got comfortable in their roles.
"Each week we have a better idea of what we're trying to do and where we're supposed to be," Durand said.
Durand has led the way. He's responsible for getting his teammates into the correct positions before the ball is snapped. Esko never huddles, and Durand has the freedom to audible if he sees something unsettling across the line of scrimmage. Arntson trusts his QB implicitly.
And Durand trusts his good buddy, Matteen. The longtime friends "have been playing catch ever since we were kids," Durand said. That's continued this fall, with Matteen hauling in 25 passes for 414 yards and four TDs. The senior occasionally moves to the backfield, where he spearheads the Eskomos' Wildcat package.
Esko is unbeaten since the opening loss at Cloquet. That's fine and dandy, but Arntson still doesn't consider his club the frontrunner in 7AAA. Heck, he doesn't even have the Eskomos at No. 2.
"Proctor is really, really good. They would have to be the favorite," the coach said. "I think the next favorite after that is probably Two Harbors. We're sitting probably below those two."
The second-seeded Rails, indeed, are on a roll. They went on the road Wednesday to beat North Branch, the No. 2 seed in Section 7AAAA. And Proctor's defense is as good as any in the Northland.
But Arntson was merely engaging in a bit of gamesmanship, right? After all, coaches loathe the "favorite" label.
Not the case, he insisted.
"Proctor is playing lights-out right now," Arntson said. "They're going to be a tough out."
Proctor hosts Two Harbors in Saturday's other semifinal.
Forum News Service staff
Expect plenty of fireworks Saturday when Barnum and Moose Lake-Willow River face off in the Section 7AA semifinals in Barnum Saturday.
Both teams won Tuesday night. While the Rebels won handily Tuesday, Barnum kept its fans in suspense until the very end.
The Bombers scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including Brandon Nelson's 24-year run and Anthony Robinson's two-yard run with 22 seconds to play in regulation. In overtime, Barnum stopped the Mesabi East Giants on their first possession, then scored on Quincy Casey's one-yard dive to win the Section 7AA first-round game in overtime.
Robinson scored twice for the Bombers and Tyler Nynas added a seven-yard run for Barnum.
Mesabi East's Cole Meyer rushed for 159 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns to lead the Giants to a 20-6 halftime lead. Meyer's 64-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter made it 28-14 before second-seeded Barnum (7-2) rallied.
Also playing in Section 7AA Tuesday night, Moose Lake-Willow River upended Crosby-Ironton 20-7. The third-seeded Rebels avenged a 17-0 regular-season loss to the Rangers by notching the game's final two TDs to win in Willow River.
Quarterback Ian Coil opened the scoring with a 62-yard blast for the Rebels only to fall behind 7-6 midway through the period. Trent Juhl's one-yard plunge made it 12-7 at the half for Moose Lake-Willow River, and Colton Little hauled in a nine-yard pass from Coil in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
No. 2 Barnum will now host No. 3 Moose Lake-Willow River in the section semifinals Saturday. Game time had not been determined before presstime.