All Minnesota high school athletic teams are in the same situation when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic that has altered sports schedules and students’ lives.

But perhaps no Northland school has dealt with as much as Esko in the past year.

For the Esko football players whose fall season was revived in recent weeks by a Minnesota State High School League reversal on playing in the spring, they are relying on the bond furthered during a trying year.

“We’re a team full of adversity,” senior running back/linebacker Brock House said. “We fight through it and we’re a family and we all pull together. This is a family and we’re all for each other.”

During a game against Aitkin last October, backup quarterback Jackson Pfister collapsed on the field and died of a congenital heart condition. Months later, basketball players Trevor Spindler and Kristy DeMuth were in a serious car accident that ended Spindler’s season. The entire Eskomos boys basketball team’s season then came to an end on the day it was supposed to play in the Section 7AA final, a victim of the pandemic. Spring sports were canceled statewide soon thereafter and students had to learn from home via the internet.

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When football was postponed at an MSHSL meeting in August, that was yet another setback to deal with.

“I thought for sure it was going to be in the spring, but even then I wasn’t sure we were going to have a season because you don’t know with COVID,” senior wide receiver/cornerback Eli Blue said. “I was definitely happy to hear that we could play in the fall and get things going.”

House says players didn't sit around and feel sorry for themselves when the initial decision was made.

“When we first heard (of the postponement) we were all disappointed, but we went into the weight room and started working,” he said. “When we heard (football was coming back) we all got excited and we’re ready to go now.”

Blue says the team has been working more on executing the playbook than on conditioning due to the condensed schedule.

That worries coach Scott Arntson somewhat, but then all teams face a similar challenge.

“Normally you have three weeks before a game and now we have two,” Arntson said. “It’s been challenging … when they made the decision, you start planning for the spring. Then all of a sudden in one weekend, you have to be ready to go.

“We are trying to take a long-term approach to it and say, ‘This first game, we might not be where we need to be,' but hopefully by the end of the season and by the time the playoffs start, we are playing good football.”

That’s what the Eskomos did a season ago when they rebounded from tragedy to rally and win close games in the Section 7AAA playoffs to reach the state quarterfinals.

Besides House and Blue, the Eskomos return senior running back/linebacker Cade Berger, senior linebacker Kevin Gregory III, senior wide receiver/linebacker Alex Bourgeault and senior linemen Gage Stankiewicz and Jake Bubb in an effort to repeat as section champs.

Without any state tournament, that’s the ultimate goal this season.

That isn’t fazing this team, however. It’s just another hurdle to overcome for a group of players who have overcome a lot in the past year.

“We are really close and all buddies,” Blue said. “Everyone is maturing. You can see a difference between last year and this year, that people are more mature and know what to do.”

Elsewhere in Section 7AAA:

Proctor seeks to bounce back from a sub-.500 season behind the return of senior RB/LB Trevor Lindberg (800 yards rushing, 7 TDs in 2019), who plans to play football at Wisconsin-River Falls, and senior QB Evan Checkalski (560 yards passing, 6 TDs). Other returners include senior OG/DT Spencer Smith, a three-year starter, senior CB Sage Henderson, junior safety Austin Mooers, senior TE/DE Nick Jauhola and senior RB/DE Dom Jauhola.

Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin returns 12 seniors from a team that went 7-3. The Titans have co-coaches this season with Mark Gibeau joining longtime head coach Bob Schwartz. GNK relies on experienced offensive and defensive lines with seniors Keegan Warmuth, Jack Lorenz and Gavin McNamara leading the way. Senior RB/LB Ty Donahue is one of the few experienced skilled position players back as the Titans try to replace wideout Dylan DeChampeau’s 658 receiving yards and nine TDs and Eli Conaway’s 1,401 yards rushing and 18 scores.

Two Harbors defeated Esko en route to a 5-4 season in 2019 and an athletic group returns in hope of going further in the section playoffs. The depth-challenged Agates will rely on seniors RB/DB Eli Schlangen, QB Kaden Edlund and TE/DB Jacob Keech, junior linemen Caleb Waldron, Ethan Maas and Brady Libal and juniors Clark Nelson (TE/LB) and Alec Churness (RB/LB).


Rebels seek to pass test

Expect Moose Lake-Willow River, once known for pounding teams with its double-wing rushing attack, to continue to wing it with senior QB Mason Olson (1,458 yards passing, 18 TDs). He returns senior receivers Brady Watrin (33 receptions, 383 yards, 5 TDs), Carter Johnson (19-357, 3 TDs) and Adam Olson.

Senior RB/LB Blake Juhl (918 yards rushing, 12 TDs, 86 tackles) stars on both sides of the ball for the defending Section 7AA champions, who posted an 8-3 record last season. Junior RB/LB Logan Orvedahl (424 yards rushing, 5 TDs) adds to the offensive options, seniors Ben Steen and Brodie Hoffman and juniors Alex Watrin and Garrett Peterson man the lines and junior Ethan Burton is back at linebacker.

Eveleth-Gilbert returns plenty of veterans from a 3-6 team. Senior FB/LB Tommy Schlotec is joined in the backfield by senior Jake Sickel, who started at QB as a freshman and sophomore, and now will share the ball-toting load. Senior LB Brandon Lind takes over at QB and is aided by three-year starting lineman Evan Harris, senior WR/CB Karson Sortedahl and junior TE/DE Will Bittmann.

Mesabi East entered the 2019 postseason seeded last in 7A but pulled off two upsets to reach the championship game. The Giants are relying on a number of seniors including RB/LB Gavin Skelton (569 yards rushing, 7 TDs, 164 combined tackles), QB/FS Hunter Hannuksela (472 yards passing, 338 yards rushing), RB/C Cole Swanson (14 receptions, 358 receiving yards), WR/C Jamie Hill, WR/C Charlie Karish, RB/LB Neale Leete and linemen Kaden Maki and Isaac Stavnes.


Raptors make statement

Carlton-Wrenshall was the surprise of the section last season after the two Nine-Man schools combined forces to play 11-man football in the playoffs. The Raptors went 9-1, losing only to Deer River in the section semifinals. Seven seniors return on each side of the ball for the Raptors: RB/LB Kyle Siiter, OG/DT all-district selection Kristian Herman, OG/DE Aaron Schilla, TE/DE Mason Perry, FB/LB Dan Eggert, 310-pound C/DT Colin Emerson and RB/LB Zeke Rousseau-Sheff.

Deer River graduated a plethora of talent from a 10-2 team that strolled through 7A en route to the Class A state quarterfinals. The Warriors bring back three-year starting seniors Blake Fox at quarterback and all-conference selection Austin Rasley at running back and linebacker as well as junior lineman Tait Kongsjord.

North Woods lost six seniors from a 3-6 team but returns seniors Zach Cheney (RB/LB), Chris Chaulklin (OL/DL), Cole Thiel (OL/DL) and Austin Sokoloski (RB/DL) and juniors T.J. Chiabotti (RB/LB) and Ty Fabish (QB/LB) for a second season in Class A. Joel Anderson is the Grizzlies’ new head coach.

Barnum struggled to score a year ago, getting blanked four times during a 1-8 campaign. But the Bombers return experienced players in senior RB/LB Reed Kornovich (416 yards rushing), senior linemen Garrett Coughlin and Ethan Berthiaume (49 tackles) and junior RB/LB William Richardson and Maxwell Moore in the hopes of being more competitive.


MIB reigns in Section 7

Mountain Iron-Buhl has been the lone Northland team to reach the state semifinals each of the past two seasons.

The Rangers (10-2 in 2019) won’t have a state tournament to shoot for, but with six starters back on each side of the ball they are favored to repeat atop Nine-Man Section 7.

Asher Zubich was the News Tribune’s All-Area quarterback after passing for 1,701 yards and 26 TDs and rushing for 1,215 yards and 19 more scores. Also returning are junior Hunter Weigl, who moves from the slot into the backfield, sophomore WR Nik Jesch, sophomore TE Sam Lokken, senior center Alex Benkusky and junior tackle Ben Lind.

“This should be a very explosive offense,” coach Dan Zubich said.

Replacing Dillon Drake, the state’s all-time tackles for loss leader, will be a challenge on defense though Ryan Drake, Brody Hill and Braden Tiedeman will join some of the offensive stalwarts who also start on defense.

Replacing RB Mason Ollman is the first order of business at Silver Bay. Ollman led the Northland with 1,926 yards rushing and finished his career with 4,207 yards and 46 TDs. Among the returning players from an 8-3 team that reached the Section 7 final are QB/S Luc Stadler, C/DT Ero Wallin, TE/DE Derek Thompson, WR/CB Carter Zabrocki, HB/LB Hunter Dow, WB/CB Sully Tikkanen and OT/DT Zack Fredrickson.

Cherry impressed by going 6-4 after not having a varsity program for the previous three seasons and not winning a game for two years before that. The Tigers return team MVP Nate Linder on both lines and fellow seniors Mason Perkovich (WR/DB), Nick Peterson (WB/CB) and Jacob Barker (WB/LB) as well as junior QB/DB Beau Barry (388 yards rushing, 6 TDs), junior WB/LB Matt Kloss (283 yards rushing) and sophomore C/LB) Jake Koskela.

Ely counts on improved depth and experience to better last year’s two-win season. Juniors Mason Davis and Eddie Prijatel and Jason Kerntz comprise the starting backfield, while Davis and Kerntz each totaled 57 tackles on defense. Senior Lane Anderson (64 tackles), a starter since his freshman season, anchors the offensive and defensive lines.

In Section 5:

South Ridge seeks to defend its title, albeit with few players back from that 8-3 squad that lost to MIB in the state quarterfinals. Senior RB Connor Bushbaum (1,191 yards rushing, 18 TDs) led the Panthers to state with an 180-yard, four-touchdown first quarter in the section title game. Senior lineman Deekon Anvid (56 tackles), senior safety Weston Stroschein (three interceptions) and junior tight end Jaxson Bennet also return.

Cromwell-Wright and Floodwood merged forces to form Cromwell-Wright Area. The Cardinals, once the dominant Nine-Man team from Northeastern Minnesota, went an uncharacteristic 3-6 last year. They hope to turn that around with the return of Jaeger Gorandson (612 yards rushing, 9 TDs) at quarterback and fellow seniors Andrew Kosloski and Daniel Belden on the offensive line, and junior RB/LBs Zevvus Smith (122 tackles) and Ethan Shelton and junior linemen Jacob Anderson and Jay Olesiak.

McGregor is banking on the return of senior RB Drew Dean, who rushed for 1,433 yards and 20 TDs last year to give him 2,680 yards and 33 TDs for his career. Dean also led the team with 100 tackles from his linebacker spot. Seniors Brennon Fredrickson and A.J. Johnson, QB/LB Willie Glunz and fellow juniors Curtis Jackson (OG/DL), Jacob Metzen (RB/DB) and Colton Anderson (RB/LB) and sophomore TE/LB Ethan Bohn (27 receptions, 71 tackles) provide plenty of experience for the Mercuries, last season's section runners-up.