Cloquet edges Esko, but falls to North Branch




The first round of the Section 7AA girls volleyball tournament opened with a bang Wednesday when Cloquet and Esko hooked up in a five-set thriller that eventually saw the Lumberjacks squeaking by the Eskomos 3-2. The final scores were 25-20, 18-25, 25-15, 10-25 and 21-19.

"We were expecting it to be a close matchup and we were prepared to play four or five sets," Cloquet coach Heidi Anderson said. "The Esko-Cloquet match is usually a good one since we are so close and the teams know each other well. We had beaten them earlier in five games this year at the end of September during homecoming week."

If ever there was a match of wild swings of emotion and momentum, this was it, as both teams had good solid play and had to withstand the charge of the other.

"It was a roller coaster ride, with momentum switching every game," Esko coach Desiree DeLeon said. "In the final game, it went point for point, and it was obvious both teams left everything they had on the floor. Both coaches had to use our timeouts and the girls just had to battle it out. It could have gone either way."

Fortunately for Cloquet, it went their way with a thrilling 21-19 deciding game.

"The fifth set was fun unlike the third and fourth sets where one of the teams controlled play," Anderson said. "The crowds from both schools were great, involved and cheering for good plays on both sides. Esko came up with some great defensive plays. There were a couple of times we thought a ball was going to score and they would make a diving save in the back row."

Among many of the big keys for Cloquet was the effort of Morgan Walsh, who had 15 kills. Alahna Ninneman had 13 kills. Savannah Sears finished with 11 kills and 13 digs. Tess Kavanaugh recorded 30 set assists for the 'Jacks.

However, the entire lineup contributed to the win.

"We used 15 of our 18 subs in the fifth set," Anderson said. "Morgan (Walsh) came up with some big swings for us. Ninneman and Sears also had some big hits, while Payton Anderson and Natalie Spath served some tough balls in key moments."

Also singled out by Anderson were Lily and Lucy Sinkkonen and Josie Steen at the net, along with setters Kavanaugh and Olivia Diver.

"The match as a whole was up and down for us," DeLeon said. "We had great play at times and we served much better than the last time we played them. The girls were prepared and they worked hard. Cloquet's resilience paid off at the end, but the atmosphere was the kind of atmosphere you want to play in."

After singing the praise of her own players, Anderson also mentioned the tough Esko squad.

"They were tough in the front row with Hannah Stark, Taiya Gregg, Bridget Yellin and Zoe Johnson," she said. "We just could not compete with their blocking in the fourth set. Their libero, Dea DeLeon, really stepped up to the occasion in a big match with her defense and passing."

Marais Houser had a big night for Esko with 44 set assists, Stark had 19 kills and 11 digs, Gregg finished with 14 kills and three blocks. Yellin added seven kills and three blocks, while DeLeon chipped in with 14 digs from the libero position.

Esko finished the season with a 13-13 record.

On Friday night the 'Jacks dropped a 25-16, 25-11 and 25-17 decision in the semifinals to the North Branch Vikings as Cloquet bowed out of the sectional tournament with the loss.

"Our girls played well against a tough team," stated Anderson. "They had some hitters who hit some shots we haven't seen much of during the regular season."

North Branch is currently ranked in the top five in the state rankings in Class AA.

Walsh, Ninneman and Steen each finished with five kills, Sears added six digs and Anderson had three ace serves in the loss.

Cloquet finished with a record of 11-19 on the season.