In a game with 10 touchdowns, 76 points and more than 600 yards rushing, a relatively minor series of plays turned out to be the difference in North Branch’s 40-36 victory over Cloquet on Thursday night.
The Vikings converted on all five of their two-point conversions, while the Lumberjacks made three of their five tries in the Section 7AAAA semifinal at Terry Egerdahl Memorial Field in Proctor.
“That was a lot of fun, the kids never quit once,” Cloquet coach Tom Lenarz said. “I’m really proud of the effort. That was a great high school football game when it goes back and forth like that. It came down to a couple plays here and there.”
It mainly came down to those two-point plays.
Vikings junior Ashton Labelle rushed for 178 yards on 16 carries and scored two touchdowns, and Labelle converted all five two-point tries for the difference.
“In a game like this, it’s going to come down to something funky for sure,” Lenarz said.
Cloquet (3-4) has been going for two all season but a 60% effort left the team short.
Despite the win, the season is over for North Branch (3-2) as well. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued more restrictive COVID-19 policies Wednesday that will shut down the high school athletic season for four weeks beginning at 11:59 p.m. Friday, meaning the championship game against Hermantown will go unplayed.
“You only get to do that every once in a while, where you know the last game is it one way or the other,” Lenarz said. “That was kind of freeing, I think, and in some ways makes people nervous.”
Players from both sides were appreciative to have had the chance to take the field one last time.
“It’s all about the governor letting us play this one final time,” Labelle said. “It felt good playing with the seniors one last time, they’ve worked hard for all this.”
North Branch missed the final two games of the regular season due to coronavirus protocols, while Cloquet played its full complement of games but was minus four members of its coaching staff, including Lenarz, for the final two games of the regular season.
“I’m just happy we got some games in because I didn’t know if we would have any games at all,” said Lumberjacks quarterback Alec Turnbull, who completed 12 of 20 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
North Branch didn’t throw a single pass, rushing for all 345 of its yards. The pace was set on the Vikings’ first drive, which ended with quarterback Andrew Thauwald reaching the end zone from 10 yards out.
Cloquet needed only two plays to answer, Marshall Hayes plunging in from the 1 after Reese Sheldon’s 64-yard run.
Each team tacked on two-point conversions following their first three touchdowns. Sheldon’s 14-yard run and Jack Sorenson’s third two-pointer tied the game for the final time at 24-24 midway through the third quarter.
The Vikings took just three plays to recapture the lead as Labelle’s 31-yard run and subsequent conversion made it 32-24.
After Cloquet responded on its next possession — Sheldon catching Turnbull’s 4-yard pass — the Lumberjacks misfired on the two-point try to leave the score at 32-30.
The teams traded touchdowns and Cloquet finally forced a punt with 4:52 remaining. That last drive reached the Vikings’ 35 before a 6-yard loss, a false start and incomplete pass ended Cloquet’s chances.
“This season has been crazy, not even knowing if we were going to have a season or not,” Turnbull said. “I thought we played a good game today, nothing much else you could ask for.”
Lenarz couldn’t agree more.
“There’s a lot of teams around the state that would love to get to play all their games. That by itself is kind of a miracle,” he said. “In football, you talk about adversity and life lessons all the time and, at the end of the day, these guys showed us how to fight through adversity.”
North Branch 16-8-8-8—40
NB — Andrew Thauwald 10 run (Ashton Labelle run)
C — Marshall Hayes 1 run (Jack Sorenson run)
NB — Labelle 6 run (Labelle run)
NB — Loghan Kroll 3 run (Labelle run)
C — Hayes 1 run (Sorenson run)
C — Reese Sheldon 14 run (Sorenson run)
NB — Labelle 41 run (Labelle run)
C — Sheldon 13 pass from Alec Turnbull (pass failed)
NB — Thauwald 18 run (LaBelle run)
C — Marshall Hayes 6 pass from Turnbull (run failed)