Prep state football: Chargers edge Esko in Class AAA semifinal

Eskomo coach Scott Arntson said he "couldn't be more proud" of the way his team played, even if they had won.

Esko quarterback Ty Christensen, 2, throws a pass during the Eskomos' 21-14 loss to Dassel-Cokato in the Class AAA semifinal Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — For more than 50 minutes, the Esko defense held Dassel-Cokato’s vaunted offense in check and even had the lead early in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Class AAA semifinal Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Chargers running back Eli Gillman had scored a touchdown in the first half, but hadn’t dominated the game like he had most opponents earlier in the season.

Then Gillman, a University of Montana recruit, broke free for a 44-yard touchdown and then had two more big runs to set up a fourth-and-goal play with less than 90 seconds left in the game.

Esko stacked the line of scrimmage, but Gillman powered through for the game-winning score in a 21-14 Charger victory.

“We were trying to send the house on that one and they just based it up,” Esko linebacker Cole Engen said. “They base blocked everyone and he slipped his way in because that’s the kind of player he is.”


Dassel-Cokato averaged more than 370 rushing yards a game this season, but the Eskomos held them to 252 Saturday. Gillman finished with 140 yards on 23 carries and all three Charger scores.

“We certainly didn’t produce like we wanted to, but I think it’s a credit to them,” Dassel-Cokato coach Ryan Weinandt said. “They were physical, they were very, very good. They did some things up front that gave us trouble.”

Esko's Javontae Gregory tackles Dassel-Cokato's Gregory Clark during the Minnesota Class AAA semifinal Satuday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

Esko coach Scott Arntson gave credit for the defense’s performance to the game plan of defensive coordinator George Perich.

“If you looked at how many times they passed the ball this season, it wasn’t a ton,” Arntson said. “We knew we had to be able to stop their running backs. The defensive coordinator — fantastic coach — he does a great job getting the kids ready and he had a great game plan. I’m super proud of what he did and what our team did today.”

The teams traded possessions in the first quarter, but the Chargers went on a long, time-consuming drive that resulted in a 3-yard Gillman touchdown run with about 4:22 remaining in the half.

Esko responded by driving down to the Charger 27-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs at the end of the half down 7-0.


The Eskomos received the second half kickoff and promptly drove 73 yards, capped by a 12-yard scoring strike from Ty Christensen to Carter Zezulka to tie the game.

Early in the fourth quarter, Christensen found Zezulka for a 21-yard gain to set up a 1-yard touchdown run from Nolan Witt, giving Esko a 14-7 lead with 9:39 remaining.

Zezulka finished with three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, while Witt ran the ball 15 times for 78 yards and a score.

The Eskomos returned to some of their base plays to get the offense going in the second half after getting away from those plays in their quarterfinal win over New London-Spicer.

“We got back in the diamond and started running the option, and that’s what we had done all year,” Arntson said. “We got away from it last week in the second half because we had to. We came in with a game plan, trying a lot of quick hitters and then just realized that we could just kind of do our thing.”

After the Witt score, Gillman broke free for his long run and then pushed through on the fourth-down play to give the Chargers the win. He said he had “no doubt” he was going to score on the play.

Dassel-Cokato's Eli Gillman carries the ball in the first half of the Chargers 21-14 win over Esko in the Minnesota Class AAA semifinal Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune


“I knew we were going to stick to what we’re good at, which is powers,” Gillman said. “Our linemen, I trust them and I knew they were going to get the ball in my hands.”

While the Eskomos (10-1) lost, Arnston was thrilled with the way his team’s effort and tenacity against Dassel-Cokato.

“My goodness, this probably sounds crazy, but I couldn’t be more proud if they would have won,” Arntson said. “This team has been such a blessing to me during the season and that’s what you get on the field, that’s the kind of character, that’s the kind of kids we have.”

Dassel-Cokato (12-0) will play Plainview-Elgin-Millville in the Class AAA final at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Bulldogs defeated Annandale 28-6 to advance earlier in the day.

Esko 0-0-7-7—14

Dassel-Cokato 0-7-0-14—21

DC — Eli Gillman 3 run (Tobias Colline kick)

E — Carter Zezulka 11 pass from Ty Christensen (Wyatt Stankeiwicz kick)

E — Nolan Witt 1 run (Stankiewicz kick)

DC — Gillman 44 run (Colline kick)


DC — Gillman 1 run (Colline kick)m l

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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