Vying for candy bars as prizes while playing golf with his buddies growing up, Sam Baker admitted he's gained a bit of a sweet tooth in the sport.
The Cloquet sophomore's swing is even sweeter.
Although not highly hyped, Baker is one of the state's most gifted prep golfers. Last June, the 6-foot, 155-pounder carded just 68 strokes - or 4-under par - on day two at the state meet to claim fourth in Class AA, while this spring, the right-hander was invited to one the state's most prestigious individual preseason events, tying for 10th out of around 100 players.
His lowest round ever is 67, a 4-under mark at the local Cloquet Country Club.
That's where Baker and his Cloquet-Esko teammates where at earlier this week, honing their skills in preparation for the sport's upcoming postseason - one in which the Lumberjacks are planning to extend well into June, long after their last day of school.
That's because last spring, Cloquet-Esko eased to the Section 7AA crown, advancing to their first state meet in the program's recent memory, finishing fourth in Class AA. For many, an accomplishing season in the least. Not these Lumberjacks.
"You could tell when they got in the van after state last year, they weren't happy," said coach Jon Horbacz, now in his seventh season at Cloquet-Esko. "They weren't satisfied. They were ready to get back then."
"We just want to do better," added Baker. "I know we've got it in us."
That they do, as along with Baker, Esko senior Keegan Poppepberg can also put the ball in the hole, as the lean 5-10, 125-pound right-hander has a record low of 68 and will be playing on scholarship next year at Minnesota-Crookston.
"They both can go pretty low," said Horbacz of Poppenberg and Baker.
Horbacz noted that teammates in senior Garrett Pollard, junior Anthony McKay, sophomores Brayden Tyman, Trevor Steinert, freshman Jacob Walsh and eighth-grader Karsen Patten can all score in the 70s and 80s as well. That kind of production, within a total of 13 boys, makes the Lumberjacks as likeable as any in Class AA.
In fact, Cloquet-Esko's six scorers at state last June were so low that if they would have scored them all, the Lumberjacks would have been the Class AA champs. Yet, in prep golf, only the top four count.
"It's kind of unmatched depth in the state," said Horbacz. "They've put in a lot of time over the summer. They've been doing that for years."
To put it further into perspective this spring, after one Lake Superior Conference match last week at the CCC, the Lumberjacks had a 34-stroke lead after 18 holes. They played for the LSC title at Nemadji in Superior on Wednesday, May 15, at press time, likely to prevail.
Another LSC crown is just the first step in their journey however, as the Cloquet Invitational still remains on May 22 at the CCC, while 7AA play begins May 28 and 30 at Giants Ridge in Biwabik. A repeat trip to state would come June 11-12 at Sand Creek in Jordan, Minn.
"There's some unfinished business," said Poppenberg. "We feel we have improved and can maybe finish the job this year.
"But it's golf, so we can't get too far ahead of ourselves," he continued. "A big number can sneak up on you."
That hasn't happened much this spring, or much of last, as these Lumberjacks have been putting together something special together - one winning candy bar at a time.
"We're just going to keep our heads down and keep going," said Baker, admitting his favorite candy is Mike and Ike. "If we just play our game, things will come."
"It's been dreamlike," chimed Poppenberg, in his sixth and final prep season. "When I was in seventh grade, we weren't good at all. To see the improvements we've made to get this good, it's truly been amazing."
Lumberjacks girls gaining numbers, confidence
While the boys are at historic program heights, the Lumberjacks' girls - consisting of Cloquet, Esko and Carlton - are likewise, seeing success.
Case in point, CEC cracked the top half of an invitational event on a sunny day at Giants Ridge Monday, May 13. Eighth-grader Avery Carlson was the Lumberjacks' low scorer, posting 98 stokes - the best round for a CEC golfer in several seasons, according to fourth-year coach Matt Carlson.
Throw in returnees in Cloquet juniors Kate Owens, Hannah Lundborg, Gracie Chartier and Carlton junior Alisha Broneak amongst a total of 15 girls - a number that has also enlarged - and the Lumberjacks are heading in the right direction.
"A few years ago, we could barely field a team. Now, we're having to pick kids to put a lineup together," said Carlson. "It's a good problem to have."
Unlike the boys, being a larger CEC cooperative, the girls compete in 7AAA, with their sections upcoming on May 30 and June 1, in Hinckley.
"It's been the goal to get the numbers up, get kids out and grow the sport," added Carlson. "If they stick with it, hopefully we keep getting better and better."