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Scores low, spirits high for 'Jacks

The Cloquet-Esko boys golf team, which won the conference title, is expected to fare well in sections next week. Photo submitted

When told that his Cloquet-Esko boys golf team should have a good chance to compete at next week's Section 7AA meet at Giants Ridge, Jon Horbacz was quick to keep things in perspective.

"If they keep the ball out of the trees and the woods, they'll have a good chance," said the sixth-year Lumberjacks coach about the challenging course in Biwabik.

On top of Giants Ridge being one of the most difficult 18-hole tracks in the area, this is also the game of golf — anything can happen.

Just ask Esko junior Keegan Poppenberg, who lost in a playoff hole last year in Section 7AAA at Hinckley, just one spot short of qualifying for state.

Poppenberg and Co. have made it their mission this spring, however, to get to the big dance, posting low scores left and right in hopes of making their way to the Class AA state meet in Jordan, Minn., on June 12-13.

"That's where they want to end up," said Horbacz of his Lumberjacks, who moved from Class AAA to AA this spring and are certainly garnering attention. "That's been their goal all year."

Speaking of goals, Cloquet-Esko has been checking off those boxes all spring. They've won four meets — nearly half of all they've competed in — while even in some, they've rarely been challenged.

Taking the top four individual scores for a team, Horbacz noted their best team total was 307 strokes earlier this season in Forest Lake — an average of 76 shots per golfer.

Essentially, that's just a few strokes over par at most courses. Pretty good for a group of teenagers.

In fact, their 307 total, on average, would have ranked them in the top-five of last year's Class AA state results.

Hence, the Lumberjacks are looking as good as any schools around the state as we enter late May.

"It's one shot at a time," Horbacz said.

With that mentality, Cloquet cruised to the Lake Superior Conference title, both in day one at Enger Park Golf Course in Duluth, followed by day two at Chequamegon Bay in Ashland on Wednesday, May 16.

While Cloquet freshman Sam Baker was the medalist at Enger, shooting a 74, Poppenberg honed the top score in Ashland, carding a 78. Baker in fact, won the LSC title at 156, while Poppenberg took third at 163. Teammates in senior Matt Radovich and freshman Trevor Steinert also earned All-LSC honors finishing in sixth and 10th, respectively.

"They've played pretty well," Horbacz said from the Cloquet Country Club as his boys prepared for the annual Cloquet Invitational on Wednesday morning as the Pine Journal went to press. "If they put it all together, they can go very low."

As one the favorites at the CCC on Wednesday, Cloquet-Esko will have the same target on their backs next Wednesday, May 30, and Thursday, May 31, when they travel north to Biwabik for sectional play.

Don't tell Horbacz his team is slotted, however.

"There are some good teams up there. Eveleth-Gilbert, Virginia, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin," Horbacz noted. "We're just hoping to put together two good days."

If they do that, then it's into June — the time of year when all high school players want to hit the links.

"They're a solid squad. Deep, young — it's exciting," added fourth-year Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls coach Matt Carlson, whose team has competed in eight meets. "They definitely have the potential to do some damage."

Carlson noted the Cloquet Invitational hosted roughly 20 boys and girls teams at the privately-owned course, including over 100 golfers, making it one of the larger prep events in the area.

"It's another beautiful day," Carlson said Wednesday. "Everyone is gearing up."

Carlson, whose girls are in Section 7AAA, will compete in Hinckley on Thursday, May 31.

Moose Lake-Willow River, in 7AA, will play at Giants Ridge on May 30-31.

Barnum, in 7A, participated in Virginia on Wednesday, May 23, and continues sectionals Thursday, May 24.