From skates to pads, breezers to headgear, hockey equipment is quite expensive these days.

Yet, for Cloquet's Cole Ketola, his right-handed stick is priceless.

Despite Ketola having just five career goals for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team, three of them came when the left-winger netted his first-career hat trick in leading the Lumberjacks past Stillwater 5-2 on Saturday, Jan. 5, at Cloquet's Northwoods Arena.

"I just got a new stick the day before," said Ketola, who needed only 3 minutes, 29 seconds to score the game's first goal, followed by back-to-back strikes in the second period. "It was just that new-stick feel, I guess."

"It's all between the ears," added first-year CEC coach Shea Walters.

Rather than crediting Ketola's new piece of graphite, Walters noted that his 5-foot-8, 185-pounder is a hard-working skater with an effective shot. Moving his junior forward on to their top-line power play unit recently, Walters added that Ketola has connected on his latest of opportunities.

"Cole's got a real good shot," said senior teammate Kade Bender, who added two goals himself last weekend against the Ponies. "I like playing with him."

"He's one of those guys who just comes to work every day," added Walters.

That's been the mindset of all of the Lumberjacks lately, as CEC (6-8) has now strung together two straight victories, including a 3-2 come-from-behind win at Duluth Marshall on Tuesday, Jan. 8, where goals from senior Gavin Rasmussen and Bender in the final 3:41 were the difference.

Bender's winner, came with just 17 seconds to play.

That was hardly the case last weekend when the gold jersey-wearing Lumberjacks led the first period 1-0, only to add a three-goal second in game they never trailed seven-win Stillwater, a school of 2,595 students - or more than double Cloquet, Esko and Carlton's combined enrollment of 1,079.

Yet, playing bigger competition has been the norm this winter for CEC, which has faced the likes of Class AA's top-ranked Minnetonka, No. 4 Maple Grove, No. 5 Duluth East and No. 7 White Bear Lake - all games lost by just a goal or two, including taking the arch-rival Greyhounds into overtime a month ago.

Don't forget contests against big schools like Lakeville North, St. Thomas Academy and Bloomington Jefferson, as well as wins over massive foes such as Eagan, Eastview and Elk River.

"We like that challenge," Ketola said. "Everyone on our team is a competitor."

While senior Landon Langenbrunner leads that competitive squad with nine goals and 11 assists, fellow captains in Bender (4-10-14) and Rasmussen (7-3-10) are also scoring threats. Sophomore Christian Galatz (7-6-13) and junior Aaron Moore (1-9-10) are also point producers for a team that is nothing short of talented and is starting to gel cohesively on the ice.

"When we're clicking, we've got good chemistry," said the 5-10, 205-pound center in Bender. "It was a rough start, but we're starting to get the hang of it."

In fact, following a 0-5 beginning of the season, CEC has won six of their past nine, with their only losses coming to No. 1 Minnetonka, fourth-ranked Maple Grove and fifth-rated East - all by two goals or less.

"We're piecing together some good wins here and heading in the right direction," said Walters, who played collegiately at Bemidji State. "We could have been on the other side earlier in the year, but now we're finding ways to wins those games."

Thus, in a loaded Section 7AA - also including second-ranked and unbeaten Andover - the 31-year-old Walters isn't wavering his optimism.

"I have the upmost confidence in us," said Walters, a Lumberjack assistant last year and now the cooperative program's third head coach in as many seasons. "I like our chances; I like our group. We're getting better every day."

Come Friday, Jan. 11, their schedule doesn't get any lighter, hosting No. 6 Eden Prairie. Meanwhile, on Jan. 31, they'll welcome Class A's No. 2 Hermantown and by Feb. 4, they'll bring in the Greyhounds in a must-see sequel to the rivalry pair's 2-1 overtime meeting in December.

"It's going to pay dividends at the end of the year," said Walters of their grueling schedule, just 11 games left before the playoffs begin in mid-February.

"Bring it on," Ketola said. "We gotta beat the best to be the best."

Speaking of Ketola, he received a commemorative puck for his inaugural varsity hat trick last week - now displayed on a shelf in his hockey-decorated room.

"It's one to remember," he said.

"That was sweet," chimed Bender. "I was happy for him."

Cloquet-EC 1-3-1-5

Stillwater 0-1-1-2

First period - 1. CEC, Cole Ketola (Kade Bender, Aaron Moore), 3:29.

Second period - 2. CEC, Bender (Ketola), 3:25; 3. S, Evan Murr (Joe Raleigh, Ethan Darby), 7:13 (sh); 4. CEC, Ketola (Moore), 12:26; 5. CEC, Ketola (Christian Galatz, Sam Olson), 14:34.

Third period - 6. CEC, Bender (Andy Acers), 1:33; 7. S, Adam Eisele (Joe Manning), 11:20.

Saves - Jesse Brown, S, 12; Owen Carlson, CEC, 23.

Cloquet-EC 0-1-2-3

Duluth Marshall 1-0-1-2

First period - 1. DM, Carter Sullivan (Carson Mehling, Griff Pichetti), 8:49 (pp).

Second period - 2. CEC, Landon Langenbrunner (Kade Bender), 7:45.

Third period - 3. DM, Keelan Golat (Aiden Bachand), 6:21; 4. CEC, Gavin Rasmussen (Sam Olson, Bender), 13:19; 5. CEC, Bender (Cole Ketola, Rasmussen), 16:37.

Saves - Wyatt Senich, CEC, 19; Alex Busick, DM, 42.