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Top sports stories of 2011

The top sports story in Carlton County for 2011 wasn't simply that the Moose Lake-Willow River football competed in the state tournament again. It was how incredibly good they were ... again.

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Photo by Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

The top sports story in Carlton County for 2011 wasn't simply that the Moose Lake-Willow River football competed in the state tournament again. It was how incredibly good they were ... again.

Again the Rebels achieved a one-loss season - which they've done since 2007 - with a 13-1 season record, extending their incredible win-loss record to 87-13 since 2004.

Again, the Rebels won the Great Polar Football Alliance-White Conference - for the fifth consecutive year, going undefeated in the conference every year.

Again, the Rebels won their section, beating the Two Harbors Agates 48-7 in the Section 7AA football championship. That win was ML-WR's 33rd consecutive victory away from home and marked the Rebels' sixth straight section championship.

The Moose Lake-Willow River football players and Coach Dave Louzek literally ran away with the win in every contest during the season and again in the post season, all the way to the Prep Bowl in November.

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Led by the three-pronged running attack of backfield trio Jake Disterhaupt, Chris Gassert and Josh Cisar, the hard-working and talented Rebels left most of their opponents in the dust. Even before the season was over, the Rebels had totaled four of the state's top-six all-time single game team rushing records, scampering for at least 523 total yards on four occasions.

The wins weren't always easy, however, especially during the state tournament.

In the quarterfinal game against Pierz, Disterhaupt took a reverse handoff down the left sideline for a game-winning 56-yard touchdown run to cap the Rebels' 13-point fourth-quarter rally for the 26-20 come-from-behind win.

Next the Rebels faced top-ranked and unbeaten Waterville-Elysian-Morristown (11-0) in a rematch of the 2009 Prep Bowl, only this time ML-WR won by a score of 35-14 and advanced to the Class AA Prep Bowl XXX at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

At the Metrodome, it was Caledonia who stopped the Rebels in their tracks, winning 27-0. The victory marked the second straight state championship for Caledonia and its fourth in five years.

The shutout was the first in the Rebels' recent memory, while Caledonia became the first team since 2005 to blank an opponent in a Prep Bowl, and just the 15th since the state championships moved to the Metrodome in 1982.

Still, the Rebels were graceful in defeat.

"This is where we wanted to be. Everybody has been working to bring home a state championship," said an emotional Gassert, one of 13 graduating seniors. "But if it wasn't us, then I'm glad to say that we can lose it to a team better than us."

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Of course, there were plenty more inspirational feats and exciting moments in Carlton County sports last year. Following are even more highlights from our year in sports.

CEC boys soccer makes first-ever state appearance

Despite being heavy underdogs, the Lumberjacks exchanged blows with juggernaut Benilde-St. Margaret's in a hard-fought 2-1 loss during a Class A boys soccer state quarterfinal match at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud in October.

Benilde seniors Brendan Schember and Jake Horton strung together first-half goals just over three minutes apart to lead the second-ranked Red Knights (18-2-1) to the narrow, come-from-behind win over the unseeded Lumberjacks.

"We came out and played," said CEC Coach Archie Clark. "[Benilde] knew they were in a game today. There's no doubt about it."

Lumberjack senior striker Landen Straub surprised everyone when the forward netted his team-best 24th goal of the season in the 11th minute after he headed Derek Anderson's pass to himself, dribbled into the penalty area and tapped it past Red Knights goalkeeper Kevin Lebahn.

However, less than three minutes later, Schember scored the equalizer in the 14th, while three minutes after that Horton sank a cross from teammate Matteo Potter, flicking the ball past diving CEC senior keeper Jarad Weeks for the eventual game-winner.

The Lumberjacks closed the year 14-4-2.

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Despite being physically out-skilled, CEC countered punches with one of the state's most decorated programs. It was a feat many didn't expect.

"Northland teams usually don't get the opportunity to play these Cities' powerhouse teams," added Hunter Leon, a senior midfielder named an All-State honorable mention. "I think we gave them a run for their money."

"We're the first team to ever go to state for CEC [boys soccer], I think that's a great thing for our program," Leon said. "Hopefully other generations can carry that on."

One also hopes that future generations will carry on another Lumberjack tradition: that of good sportsmanship. The CEC boys were also awarded the 2011 Lake Superior Soccer Referee Association Team/Coach Sportsmanship Award.

Esko girls come in third in state cross country

Battling a side ache and collapsing in exhaustion after her third-place run at state in November, Marisa Shady found the energy afterward to congratulate Blake's Clare Flanagan with a hug - from one state champion to the next.

Even though the Esko junior didn't regain the individual title she won last year, Shady was first in line to commend Flanagan for winning the Class A girls cross country championship in Northfield, Minn.

Flanagan, a sophomore at The Blake School in Minneapolis, ran the 4,000-meter course in 14 minutes, 21.7 seconds. Cannon Falls' Emi Trost followed Flanagan in second at 14:34.7, while Shady placed third at 14:45.5.

The Esko girls team placed third with 132 points, behind champion St. Cloud Cathedral (94) and second-place Annandale (118). The finish was one of the highest in school history, behind only Esko's runner-up finish in 1979 and state championship team in 1980.

"It's a remarkable accomplishment for those girls," said Esko Coach Jerry Zimny, whose team improved from fifth a year ago and earned a trophy this fall. "They've been here enough where making it to state was just a step in the process. They came down with the idea of competing. They had a goal of getting a trophy."

Esko junior Kallyn Knutson reached All-State status by placing 24th in 15:29.3. Following Knutson was Kailee Kiminski (49th), Erika Shady (64th), Karli Kulas (85th), Molly Meysembourg (112th) and Kate Shelerud (150th).

At the section meet before that, the fourth-ranked Eskomos went 1-2-3, and placed four runners in the top-eight en route to a mere 25 points, tallying the lowest Section 7A team score in recent memory.

Esko girls track team dominates

After almost not making it to the competition due to transportation issues, the Esko girls track team was crowned the Class A Minnesota State True Team champions in May. Although senior Alyson Glumac won the 100-meter dash, junior Caitlyn Lilly the long jump and Marisa Shady the 800-meter run, Esko Coach Tim Lindquist said it was his girls' teamwork that shined over the weekend.

"No one person was more important than the other," Lindquist said. "It's the True Team. It's a whole team event."

Esko finished with 452 points, besting runner-up Blue Earth Area at 435 and Luverne at 372.

The team would continue its winning ways straight into the Section 7A track and field championships at the University of Minnesota Duluth in June. At the section meet, the Esko girls posted 175 points en route to their sixth consecutive section crown. That mark was good for 120 more points than their nearest competitor. Esko qualified eight individuals for the state meet in St. Paul, and swept all four relay titles for the fifth straight year in a row. The 800-meter relay team of Erika Shady, Caitlyn Lilly, Olivia Rengo and Alyson Glumac even set a school record.

At the Class A Minnesota track and field state meet in St. Paul, the team finished seventh out of 76 participating teams - Esko's highest finish since they won the state crown back in 1995.

Esko used its depth to rack up their 27 total points. Eleven girls earned All-State honors and marked points for the Eskomos - a number Coach Lindquist said was probably higher than any other competing school.

Fond du Lac Ojibwe surprise everyone

Ken Fox knew the game was far from done.

Following a string of buckets that gave his Fond du Lac Ojibwe boys basketball team an 11-point lead with four minutes left on state-ranked Chisholm - coached by the legendary Bob McDonald - Fox pointed out the reality to his bunch during a timeout.

"I told them there was a lot of time left on the clock," recalled Fox. "I told them that they needed to stay together. I told them it wasn't over."

McDonald, in his 50th year coaching Chisholm, came out with a full-court press. After that, the man with more than 900 career wins got another, as his Bluestreaks outscored the Ogichidaa 15-2 to close the game en route to a 64-62 Section 7A semifinal win at Romano Gymnasium at the University of Minnesota Duluth in March.

The Ogichidaa had been underestimated all year long. Basically, no one outside of Cloquet had heard of them. They had played stellar foes such as Minnesota Transitions, Minneapolis Patrick Henry, Roosevelt, Chisholm and even top-ranked Hopkins, but no one knew. Then, after knocking off Cherry and Cook County - both higher seeds - they advanced to the small tribal school's first- ever Final Four. The Ogichidaa played the Bluestreaks and competed down to the final horn.

And they almost pulled off a miracle.

Dewey Dupuis led the FDL attack with 19 points, as his array of 3-pointers midway through the second half let the Ogichidaa turn a 32-27 halftime deficit into an 11-point, 60-49 lead with four minutes to play.

"Dewey really stepped up for us," said Fox of his senior guard. "He led us in scoring the past couple games and really played big."

But it was after Dupuis' streak that McDonald called a timeout and the wheels fell off. FDL's Trevor Brown fired a half-court prayer for the win as time expired, but the ball ricocheted off the rim and the boys fell to the ground, some bursting into tears.

Although a loss, it was a victory, too.

"One guy told me it was the best basketball game he's seen in his life," said Fox. "No Fond du Lac team in history has ever gotten that far. Win, lose or draw, I'm so proud of them."

Although the year came to an end with a 14-15 record, it's one they'll never forget.

It was a game for the ages - with heart-stopping action all the way through.

"They left everything they had on that floor and have nothing to be ashamed of," Fox continued. "They did something special this year. They did something that when they come back to their class reunion in 20 years, people will still be talking about it."

Esko volleyball goes to state for the second year in a row

Despite graduating six people from last year's volleyball team that went to state, the Eskomos played another stellar season.

In fact, they even improved on last year's state performance. Esko piled up 27 wins during the 2011 season, while a 3-2 consolation win over Visitation avenged a winless appearance at state a year ago. It was just Esko's second-ever state win and first since 2004.

In the end, the Eskomos finished as the Class AA consolation runners-up in the state tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, losing first to No. 1-ranked Marshall in three quick sets, then beating Visitation 3-2 before losing to Sauk Centre 3-0. The team finished its season at 27-6.

"That never changes, it's always fun," said Coach Desi DeLeon. "The competition is good. You're in the top eight schools in the state, playing against schools that have very good volleyball teams, but it is fun to do that."

Esko-Carlton girls win Section 7A soccer title, advance to state

In October, the Eskomos defeated top-seeded Chisago Lakes Area 2-0 in the Section 7A championship game in Lindstrom, Minn., and earned the right to go to state. The upset win avenged back-to-back section title losses for the Eskomos, which lost to the Wildcats in last year's final and to Cloquet the year before that.

Sophomore Kadee Karkkainen and junior Marisa Shady scored second-half goals and goalkeeper Rachel Ofstie posted a shutout in the game. The Eskomos (13-5-1), who reached the final by beating Hermantown in a shootout, qualified for their second state tournament and first since 2005.

But the Eskomos were stymied by fourth-ranked Rochester Lourdes as they lost 2-0 in a Class A girls soccer state quarterfinal at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud, Minn. There were chances to score, but it didn't happen. It was only the second night the Eskomos (13-6-1) had been shutout during their 20-game season.

Cloquet hosts state Little League tournament for the first time

On July 27, the state Little League baseball tournament kicked off in Cloquet for the first time ever. Braun Park and Ed Mettner Field played host to the state's largest event in its storied youth baseball history.

According to tournament director Henry Chruscielski, 19 teams were represented in five age divisions (9-10s, 11s, 12s, 13s and 14s) and four districts throughout the state. Roughly 30-35 games were played from Wednesday through Saturday.

In addition to the games, there were skills competitions, including a radar gun reading, players-coaches relay race, around-the-horn contest and hitting competition.

Eight teams from District 3 represented the Northland in the tournament, but the hometown team emerged victorious in at least one age division: Over three games, the Cloquet 13-and-under District baseball team defeated Duluth Central and Eastern, as well as Duluth Central again (11-6) for the title on their home turf.

Barnum girls basketball coach hits 600 wins

Barnum's 76-20 Section 5A first-round win over Onamia on March 3 marked Coach Randy Myhre's 600th career coaching win, putting him in an elite group of coaches.

"It says a lot about the program," Myhre said. "Six hundred wins says a lot about the organization and mostly about the kids who are playing the game."

Myhre started coaching girls basketball in 1978.

"To survive this long in coaching - and some of it is survival - you need the support of your district, board, parents and administration," Myhre said. "Our fan base has been outstanding and we have players who want to excel and work hard at something worthwhile. I can't take credit for that. The credit belongs to the kids. I've just been one part of it."

Myhre also remembers his first game in charge 32 seasons ago.

"I won't forget it for a long time," he said. "We got pounded by about 60 points, against one of the great Moose Lake teams. We decided that we had nowhere to go but up and if we were going to get serious, we had work to do. Looking back on it, I'm really proud of what happened for the kids. Now, we've got what we've got."

What the defending Minnesota Class A champion Bombers "got" after dismantling Isle 64-41 for Myhre's 601st win, was another section title game, which pitted the Bombers against Sebeka (22-6). In a surprise upset, Sebeka won that game.

Honorable Mention

Deserving honorable mention is that fabulous semifinal football game in October when Cloquet upset Proctor to get into the section championship game. The win sent Cinderella Cloquet (5-5) to face top-ranked Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin in the Section 7AAA final at Malosky Stadium on the campus of University of Minnesota Duluth. While the championship game was equally exciting - in the final five minutes of the game, Cloquet missed two good chances to score - that game didn't go the Lumberjacks' way. They lost 14-7, but played their hearts out, and for that they deserve a little recognition.

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