Prep football: Coaching their sons is ‘a blessing every day’ for Esko assistants
The three coaches graduated from the school in the early 1990s and ended up playing college football together at Valley City State in North Dakota.
ESKO — Thirty years ago, Esko assistant coach Scott Antonutti was a football player without a team.
An Esko graduate, Scott spent two years playing football at Hibbing Community College. He planned to continue playing at Wisconsin-Superior, but the school canceled the program two games into the 1992 season.
One afternoon early that fall, he decided to check out Esko’s practice. After explaining to then-head coach Bill Hudspith what happened with UWS, Hudspith had a suggestion.
“He said, ‘Bring your gear and come practice with us,’” Scott said. “So I did for the rest of that season and I had a blast.”
That season was a particularly special season for the Eskomos. They advanced to the state semifinals at the Metrodome for the first time, a feat only equaled by the 2021 squad’s run to U.S. Bank Stadium.
The time with the team also allowed Scott to establish a long-lasting friendship with George Perich, now the Eskomos’ defensive coordinator. George was a freshman when Scott was a senior at Esko, so the pair never knew each other well in school.
“It was that season where I really saw that (George) was a really good football player,” Scott said. “We just started spending more time together and I think that was the first time I got to really be buddies with him.”
Scott left the following fall to play at NAIA Valley City State in North Dakota. Ryan Stewart, now the Esko linebackers coach, had played with Scott at Esko and for a season at HCC.
Ryan joined Scott at VCSU and it wasn’t long before George — taking a gap year before college — joined them for spring workouts with the Vikings. George enrolled that fall and the pair spent much of the rest of their college years living and spending much of their time together, often speculating about the future.
“Coach Antonutti, Coach Stewart and I actually talked about having sons and having them come back to Esko and win state championships,” George said.
Today, all three men have sons on the team and in an odd coincidence, all three boys — Koi Perich, Joe Antonutti and Jace Stewart — are juniors.
“If you go back to those days of our lives, we were just playing football and having fun,” Ryan said. “Sometimes you say, ‘Hey man, would that be cool someday,’ but to have those things lined up and to have your boys all be in the same grade…it’s just a blessing every day. It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had.”
While the 2021 squad equaled the 1992 team’s accomplishment, the 2022 team is currently the second-ranked Class AAA team in Minnesota and has a real shot at bringing a state title back to Esko.
After dropping 70 points on Pine City Sept. 23, the Eskomos’ gaudy offensive stats are impressive, but the defense might be the best in Minnesota. Esko has allowed six points through four games this season and has 24 tackles for a loss as a team.
“We just have a lot of talented kids who decided to put in the extra work in the weight room to make themselves better players,” George said. “We’ve got a great group of seniors and a really strong class of juniors. They’re just tough, physical kids that like to get after the football.”
Joe leads the team in solo tackles with 25 and Koi is second with 21, but perhaps the more interesting part of it is their fathers seem to have passed down their close-knit friendships as well.
“They were all best friends and they’ve been best friends their whole lives,” Joe said. “It just so happened that they all had boys in the same grade and now we’re all best friends and we’re playing football together, just like they did.”
The Antonuttis and Periches lived for many years just a couple blocks away from each other in Esko. Scott said Koi was over at their house in the summer so often that he and his wife began to refer to him as their “summer son.”
For several years, the Stewart family had moved away from Esko for Ryan to pursue a job as a school administrator. Koi said he didn’t really remember being friends with Jace before he moved, but it didn’t take long for the three of them to establish something new.
“In sixth grade, that’s when Jace came back to Esko,” Koi said. “He and I used to be friends — I didn’t remember because I was super little, but as soon as he got back it took us about two weeks to build a friendship.”
The three boys have become almost inseparable over the years. George and Scott have coached their sons since they were second graders in the Cloquet Youth Football Association and after the Stewarts returned to Esko and football has become a part of their bond, much like their fathers.
“We’ve always been competitive with each other, knowing about our fathers,” Jace said. “But we’ve always loved football together and now with our dads being on the sidelines and coaching us, it makes it even cooler.”
Scott said he had a “surreal” moment last year as he waited for the Eskomos to take the field at U.S. Bank Stadium for their game against eventual Class AAA champion Dassel-Cokato.
“We were behind this big thick glass and George and I took a selfie,” Scott said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow,” because then it dawned on me. I think about the conversations that we had in Valley City, the stuff we talked about and for it to come to fruition on that field with those boys and men — it’s something special.”
The Esko football program has become a real family affair between coaches and players over the years. While they didn’t play college football together, assistant Kevin Gregory and Ben Haugen both have sons on the team and former head coach Bill Hudspith’s grandson, Wyatt Hudspith, is on the team as well.
What’s more, with the team on the cusp of achieving something no Esko team has ever done before — moving on to the state championship game — the players are thinking about the future of the program themselves.
“They’ve helped build a winning mentality that we always bring to the table,” Koi said. “We just want to keep it going and pass it down through the generations.”