A three-game losing skid isn’t normally the way a team wants to enter the section playoffs, but that’s the reality facing Cloquet.
The Lumberjacks will play North Branch in the first round of the Section 7AAAA tournament at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, at Egerdahl Field in Proctor.
After starting 3-0 — including a 24-12 win in the season-opener at North Branch — Cloquet was edged by Hermantown, blown out by Grand Rapids and lost their regular season finale to Duluth East 27-22.
The Greyhounds jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead, but the Lumberjacks were able to battle back using an Alec Turnbull 7-yard pass to Marshall Hayes on fourth-and-goal to cut the gap to 20-6. Then Alex Petersen returned a kickoff 92 yards and East scored to make it 27-14 with 9:25 left to play.
Hayes scored again in the final minute, but time ran out on the Lumberjacks comeback attempt. Still, coach Tom Lenarz was happy with the way his team responded, especially after a disappointing performance against Grand Rapids the week before.
“That's one of the things I was really proud of,” Lenarz said. “We didn't do that very well against Grand Rapids. Against East, the kids instead of falling apart and starting to kind of bicker and chew on each other a little bit, they really pulled together and played much better in the second half.”
In the second half, Cloquet (3-3) simply played better football, according to Lenarz, as opposed to making adjustments at halftime.
“We just played a little better defensively,” he said. “We adjusted a few things, but all in all we just tackled a lot better and eliminated mistakes. On offense, I think we played pretty solid football in the second half, in terms of executing our offense and eliminating some of the mistakes we were making early in the game.”
The season has been challenging for Cloquet. Lenarz said the Lumberjacks have had at least a couple players sit out every game because of quarantines for exposure to the coronavirus. Lenarz himself missed the games against Grand Rapids and Duluth East due to a potential exposure, but it appears the team will face North Branch with its full complement of players and coaches.
North Branch (2-2) has had its season shortened by a third after the entire team was forced to quarantine for two weeks following a 28-16 loss to Grand Rapids Oct. 30. The Vikings held their first practice in more than two weeks Monday, Nov. 16, but Lenarz isn’t expecting a big change from their meeting earlier this season.
“They’re a pretty physical team, but you know, they’re just coming out of a quarantine also,” Lenarz said. “I’m sure for them it feels like they’re starting over in some ways, so it’ll be interesting to see how that impacts them positively or negatively, but the bottom line is they’re not going to change what they do offensively or defensively.”
After throwing the ball more than is typical for Cloquet, Lenarz is looking to pound the ball and get back to basics as the weather gets colder and field conditions deteriorate in a season where the postseason started nearly a month later than normal.
“In northern Minnesota late in the year, you have to be able to control the football and run the ball,” he said. “The last two weeks, in particular, it’s really been hit and miss. So that’s one of the things we’re really going to talk about this week at practices — getting back to establishing who we are on both sides of the ball and really making sure we’re solid in our fundamentals so that we’re able to handle whatever the defense throws at us.”