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Cloquet-Esko swings to state

After falling just one stroke short of advancing to his first state boys golf meet last spring, Esko's Keegan Poppenberg could have let the missed chance slight his game.

"I used it as motivation," Poppenberg said, confidently.

Perhaps no was more confident than Poppenberg and Co. last Thursday at Giants Ridge in Biwabik when the smooth right-hander and his Cloquet-Esko teammates swung their way to the Section 7AA boys golf title and a spot in next week's Class AA state meet June 12-13 in Jordan.

After his oh-so-close moment last year in then-Section 7AAA, Poppenberg made it his goal for he and his Cloquet-Esko teammates to qualify for this spring's prep golf pinnacle, as the cooperative program was reclassified to Class AA.

That probably explains Poppenberg's jubilation last week on the Iron Range, as the Lumberjacks' two-day team total of 646 was more than enough to win the trophy, which Poppenberg said he held in his lap all the way back home.

"For me, it's a dream come true," said Poppenberg, a junior who shot a 162 — good for seventh overall last week. "I don't really know how to describe it, really. Just awesome."

That pretty much explains Cloquet-Esko's play all spring. Winners of several meets, including their own Cloquet Invitational, the Lumberjacks have been a force all season.

In fact, their nearest competition last week was Eveleth-Gilbert, who's 670 team total was 24 strokes off of the pace.

"To win by 24 strokes, that's pretty good," said Esko senior Matt Radovich, who carded a 161 to place fifth.

That's on top of the team being in sixth or seventh place after the opening nine holes Wednesday, June 30, according to a much-relieved sixth-year Cloquet-Esko coach Jon Horbacz.

"I'm proud," Horbacz said. "They calmed down, played well and picked each other up. (Last) Thursday was a fun day.

"They've made their first goal," he said of qualifying for state — the third time in Cloquet's school history and first appearance since the 1980s. "Now, they get to have fun. It'll be interesting to see what happens."

Along with Poppenberg, Radovich and fellow teammates in Cloquet's Sam Baker (160, second), Anthony McKay (163, 10th), Brayden Tyman (171, 17th) and Trevor Steinert (188, 39th), it's sure to be an intriguing weekend of state competition at the pristinely-groomed course of Ridges at Sand Creek.

"State is something a lot of athletes want to do. I'll remember it for a long time," Radovich said. "A lot of people probably don't know us, but they will after the tournament."

Poppenberg concurred: "If we get hot, we could win it."