'Jacks, Eskomos enter postseason poise
The numbers put up by the Cloquet-Carlton girls soccer team this fall are scary enough.
In 16 games, the Lumberjacks have 15 wins — including 11 in a row — while they have obliterated their opponents 65-6 and posted a gaudy 10 shutouts.
And while top-seeded Cloquet-Carlton enters the 17-team Section 7A playoffs nothing but winners for past 35 days, Dustin Randall posed an even more frightening challenge to their upcoming postseason foes.
"I think we're still a team getting better," said Randall, now in his 10th season as the Lumberjacks' coach. "I think we've got more in us."
That's hard to grasp. All Cloquet-Carlton (15-1) has done this fall is play nearly-perfect in the pitch. Along with their 10 shutouts, they have allowed only one goal six times, and never two. Meanwhile, they average 4.1 goals per 80 minutes, with their high being 10.
Needless to say, the Lumberjacks are the 7A front runners to get back to their first state tournament since their last in 2012.
"They've been the top team for the last few years now," said Esko coach Nicki Peterson, whose Eskomos just lost a 2-1 affair to the Lumberjacks last Thursday evening at Esko Stadium.
In the second meeting between the two neighboring teams this fall, Cloquet's Kendra Kelley added to her state-best goal tally, as the senior standout marked her 36th netter off a Lexi Cooke assist in the 16th minute last week.
The lone goal held through a 1-0 Lumberjack halftime advantage, until Katie Turner added to it on a pass from teammate Kiana Bender to make things 2-0 in the 68th before Terry McColley chipped in Esko's lone tally 10 minutes later.
Bender and Kelley alone have counted 51 goals together, good for most team totals — in an entire high school season.
"You man-mark Kendra, and anticipate it'll go to Kiana," Peterson said about defending the pair of scoring speed demons. "And then, you keep your fingers crossed."
"We use them to open things up," added Randall. "It's soccer. It's a team game of 11 players. One is pretty easy to shut down."
Kelley, however, is as tough as they come. Mixed with scoring ability and ball-carrying strength, Kelley is arguably the fastest girl statewide, winning the girls' Class AA 200-meter dash title last June.
Running the 200 in 24.60 seconds and 100 in 12.24 — not to mention being a relay runner and long jumping queen at 19 feet — Kelley has caught Division I track and field coaches and is soon set to make decision for her collegiate future.
While she said earlier this week that she will not play soccer at the next level — despite offers — Kelley is poised to make one last push on the field, beginning this week.
"I'm thankful for everything this sport has brought me," she said. "I plan to make the most out of the time I have left."
That begins tonight, Thursday, Oct. 11, when Lumberjacks open the playoffs at Bromberg Field at 7 p.m. in Cloquet. Saturday would be the quarterfinals, while Tuesday and Thursday, the semis and final.
Cloquet-Carlton got to the last year, suffering a heartbreaking defeat to North Branch, 2-1, one step short of the state's pinnacle.
"After the pain of losing the final last year, we are more focused than ever to get through this tournament," Kelley said. "I am confident we have what it takes, but I am not overlooking any team."
"The best team doesn't always win. You have to take advantage of your chances and get lucky sometimes, too," Randall said. "We know it's always tough to get through."
No. 2 Chisago Lakes, No. 3 Hermantown, fourth-seeded Duluth Marshall and fifth-seeded Two Harbors could certainly be contenders — losing to the Lumberjacks by just a goal or two this fall.
That counts the Eskomos (8-7-1), falling by just a goal last week and honing their own scoring senior in Annika Wold at 14 goals.
Meanwhile, classmate goalkeeper Macy Sunnarborg is as talented as they come between the pipes, sporting 155 saves to allowing just 21 goals, with six shutouts.
Sunnarborg made 16 saves last week, while Cloquet-Carlton netminder Gracie Meagher turned aside 11.
Sunnarborg, at 5-foot-10, is long, athletic and most of all, aggressive.
And when you get a good goalkeeper, anything can happen.
"I never count out my girls," said Peterson, who's team opens tonight, hosting North Branch at 5 p.m.
"We can make good things happen," added Sunnarborg about her Eskomos, seeking their first state appearance since 2011.
That year, they beat the Lumberjacks in the final, while a year later, Cloquet took their turn heading down state. It was the last time either team hoisted the section title.
And sitting atop opposites of the bracket, perhaps a third rivalry meeting, winner-take-all clash would be set for next Thursday's final?
"I'd like to play them again," Sunnarborg said. "Whoever would win would be a good representative at the state tournament."
"Hopefully there's a rematch," Peterson said.
First half — 1. CC, Kendra Kelley (Lexi Cooke), 16th minute.
Second half — 2. CC, Katie Turner (Kiana Bender), 68th; 3. E, Terryn McColley, 78th.
Saves — Gracie Meagher, CC, 11; Macy Sunnarborg, E, 16.