Oddly, during this strangest of high school athletic seasons, the ones least likely to have been able to follow the success of the Cloquet-based boys and girls soccer teams are the players themselves.
Due to COVID-19 regulations strictly limiting the number of fans at home games, players from each team have had to wait until the Section 7A playoffs to see the other play.
Now they hope to watch each other win section titles.
Since fall state tournaments were scrubbed by the Minnesota State High School League, section titles are now the pinnacle of the sport.
The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys (11-0) and the Cloquet-Carlton girls (9-1-1) each head into Tuesday's first round of playoffs as the No. 1 seed and will host doubleheaders as long as they keep winning.
For the girls, it’s nothing new. The Lumberjacks reached the state tournament a year ago, but the boys were sub.-500 and lost in the section quarterfinals.
Despite the uncertainty of a fall sports season, the dozen CEC seniors took it upon themselves to prepare for their final go-round.
“When we realized we weren’t going to have any summer soccer, we joined camps and did stuff on our own,” senior forward Drake Schramm said. “Once we started practice, we realized how deep our team was and how many assets we have.
“After scoring 13 goals against Two Harbors (in the season opener), we realized we had a special team.”
But it wasn’t the 12-goal victory over the Agates that grabbed people’s attention. A 1-0 midseason win over Class AA power Duluth East — CEC’s first over the Greyhounds — put the Lumberjacks on the statewide map.
“Most of us who played on the JV team in eighth grade, talked about beating East and this year we realized it was our best chance,” said Schramm, an Esko senior. “The defense dug in in the second half and was probably our best defensive game the whole year.”
Subsequent 11-0 and 8-0 routs over Lake Superior Conference rivals Duluth Denfeld and Hermantown, respectively, proved the team’s dominance.
“It’s hard work, determination and discipline,” CEC coach Dave Bergan said. “Going into the season everybody knew there was a role to play, and we worked on those roles. At this point, everyone is playing their role and is really dialed in. I don’t foresee a weakness. We have a lot of players who come off the bench who are incredible as well. We are able to keep the motor running the whole way through, even when we bring in the subs.”
While Schramm is the main weapon with a Northland-high 19 goals and 35 points, Sierra Leone-born brothers Jordan and Elijah Aultman have combined for 24 goals and seven assists off the bench for a team averaging a state-best 6.6 goals per game.
CEC opens with Hibbing-Chisholm and faces a rematch against either Denfeld or Hermantown in Thursday’s quarterfinals. Princeton is the No. 2 seed.
“They knew that whatever the season was going to bring, they were going to make the most of it,” Bergan said of his seniors.
Likewise, the Cloquet-Carlton girls have made the most of a season bereft of any normalcy.
The district is investigating longtime coach and teacher Dustin Randall for misconduct and he was put on paid leave at the start of the season, leaving assistant Bobbie Turner in charge. She led the team to a 9-0 start before a 4-2 loss to Duluth East and a 1-1 tie with Esko.
“It was a little disappointing to finish up the way we did with a loss and a tie,” Turner said. “It’s kind of nice, at the same time, to get that out of the way before the section tournament so we don’t have to stress out about that first loss.”
The Lumberjacks are led in scoring by sophomore Alexa Snesrud (13 goals, 5 assists, 18 points) and junior Katie Turner (7-6—13), continuing a trend in recent years of high-scoring forward combos.
Kiana Bender and Kendra Kelley worked well in tandem and then it was Turner’s turn to pair up front with Bender last year. Now Turner and Snesrud are the dynamic duo.
“Clicking with Alexa this season has been one of the easiest things that I’ve had to do,” Katie Turner said of her basketball teammate and fellow track relay runner. “We’ve had good success, good connections with each other on passes and scoring off each other’s passes. It’s been an easy adjustment.”
Lake Superior Conference runner-up Duluth Marshall (10-1) is seeded second. Chisago Lakes, which Cloquet-Carlton beat in overtime in last year’s section final, dropped out of the tournament due to districtwide COVID-19 issues.
Indeed, staying away from coronavirus complications might be a tougher opponent than any on the schedule.
“Our social circles are limited to each other and our families,” Katie Turner said. “We’re taking every precaution we can to stay safe and finish out the season without any complications.”
Her mother added: “We’re going into this feeling very fortunate that we made it through the first 11 games with no issues on our team. Not having a state tournament is a bit of a bummer, but we’re lucky we got what we got.”