Last season, the Cloquet football team achieved something only one other Cloquet football team had: a runner-up finish at the state tournament.
Loaded with talent, the 'Jacks knew from the start last season they would be good. Despite graduating a boatload of seniors from last year's squad, the Lumberjacks return another strong senior class and may surprise football fans this season.
"In my opinion, it should be the goal of every program to start predominantly seniors every year," Cloquet head coach Tom Lenarz said. "If things are going well, then you will always be replacing a large number of starters. In fact, the years where we have had a lot of returning starters were years we were not very good the year before."
The 'Jacks graduated 21 seniors from last year's state runner-up squad, but they also return 17 seniors to this year's team.
One of the biggest losses from last year's team was star quarterback and now-University of Minnesota Duluth freshman Tim Pokornowski. Replacing him at quarterback will be a key factor for the Lumberjacks as they try and make another trek south in the playoffs.
"Riley Leslie will take over as the quarterback, and he will continue to start on defense for us, too," Lenarz said. "Riley is a very athletic and smart kid and is obviously not as big as Tim, but he throws a good ball."
Markus Pokornowski, Tim's brother, will get the nod at fullback. Lenarz is expecting him to have a solid year.
"We expect Markus to have a big year," he said. "We will also have other running backs sharing time carrying the ball in Andre Peters, Alex Leuzzo, Derek Rengo and Trey Harkins. All of those guys have some experience from last year, but will be starters for the first time. Eli Benson is back at split end for us and he is very good."
The offensive line will be a senior-dominated group. According to Lenarz, they are a lunch bucket-type of crew.
"They are a hard working group," he said. "Luke Koneitzko is the only returning starter, but Noah Niemi and Brady Doren both played significant minutes last year. I am excited to see what they can do when we scrimmage Saturday. Our success this year as a team will be in large part based on the lines performance and growth."
On the defensive side of the ball the line will see a rotation of as many as seven players, with Jordan Leimer and Niemi being the lone returners up front. At this point, the coaching staff is still evaluating players before making decisions on where each player will line up.
"We expect to be in the mix for a conference and section championship this year," Lenarz said. "These are goals we set every year and this team has worked very hard to continue the gains we made last year. It has been fun to watch this group work because they want to live up to the standard that has been set. They are not waiting for people to give them anything."
The 'Jacks will get a chance to don the pads and scrimmage Saturday at 10 a.m., when they face Grand Rapids at home.