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Prep football: All-Area Player of the Year Pokornowski was a dual threat for Cloquet

Tim Pokornowski led Cloquet to the Prep Bowl en route to being named News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Watching Tim Pokornowski a year ago hinted at the Cloquet quarterback’s potential. The potency of his right arm was undeniable, and he could tuck it and run when the play broke down.

But the then-junior was raw — not easily rattled, but susceptible to “happy feet.”

Those disappeared this fall, replaced instead by “happy feats.”

Pokornowski added so much polish to his game over the summer that he entered his senior season looking like a new QB. The tangibles were always there, but his poise in the pocket blossomed. It was on display from the start. Pokornowski opened the year by completing 15 of 22 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns against Esko, then came back the next week and was nearly flawless vs. Duluth Denfeld — 153 yards and two TDs on 10-of-11 passing.

Let the fun begin.

Big games, big-time throws and dual-threat dominance became the norm as Cloquet rolled all the way to the Class AAAA state final at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Lumberjacks suffered their lone blemish, a 14-0 loss to Holy Angels Academy.

All told, Pokornowski finished with 100 completions on 179 attempts (56 percent) for 1,439 yards and 16 TDs, plus another 1,156 rushing yards and eight more scores. Cloquet’s catalyst is the News Tribune’s All-Area Player of the Year.

“He put the time in and he developed himself as a passer,” Lumberjacks coach Tom Lenarz said. “It was a lot of fun seeing him make that jump and be so confident and so comfortable with the offense.

“He turned into a complete quarterback.”

Pokornowski was pretty dang good as a junior, but there were times he looked precisely like a varsity football rookie. Last summer, he focused on the nuances of the position. At Minnesota Duluth’s team camp, Pokornowski flourished against the likes of Elk River, Apple Valley and Benilde-St. Margaret’s, which ended Cloquet’s 2016 campaign in the state quarterfinals. He attended another camp just for quarterbacks, and worked diligently with Lenarz and Lumberjacks QB coach Ryan Lindstrom.

The preparation paid off. Pokornowski emerged a more patient passer capable of making throws he couldn’t have made last season. Lenarz alluded to the Section 7AAAA title game. That night against North Branch, Pokornowski, calm and collected, repeatedly extended drives by connecting on crucial third-down attempts. On one in particular, he rolled to his left until Aahsan Maigag broke open 12 yards downfield.

“He hits Aahsan with a laser, rolling to his left and throwing across his body,” Lenarz recounted. “It kept that drive going and it kind of allowed us to take control at that point.”

Cloquet remained in control the next week, when tradition-rich Becker mounted a scare in the first round of the state tournament before the Lumberjacks recovered to win 36-21.

That snowy success would have qualified as Cloquet’s signature victory if not for the following week, when Pokornowski ran all over South St. Paul at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Lumberjacks hardly needed a playbook. Nope — snap it to No. 3 and let him do his thing. Pokornowski obliged by gashing the Packers for 249 yards on 30 carries in a 40-21 triumph that sent Cloquet to its first title game since 1976.

That wasn’t the intent going in, but at that point in the season offensive balance takes a backseat to “just win, baby.”

None of the Lumberjacks, not even Pokornowski, realized the kind of numbers he was putting up as it transpired. The workload took its toll, but adrenaline trumped fatigue.

“It just kind of happened,” Pokornowski said. “Some of the hits, I could really feel it. And as the game went on, I started to wear down a little bit, but I just kept going.”

Pokornowski comes across as soft-spoken. Not shy, but he’s certainly not “one of those rah-rah guys who’s yelling and screaming all the time,” Lenarz said. Don’t be fooled, though — he’s as competitive as they come.

Smart, too. Pokornowski isn’t blow-you-away fast, but he has an almost sixth sense when it comes to finding running lanes and open receivers. It’s like the play develops first in his mind, then on the field. In other words, he’s a step ahead. Even against Holy Angels, a team infused with speed, Pokornowski managed 113 rushing yards on 22 carries.

It’s why Lenarz described him as Cloquet’s “go-to guy” on third down. Heck, most downs.

“He made a lot of big plays,” said Mitchell Gerlach, one of Pokornowski’s favorite targets who had 30 receptions for 449 yards. “He’s making guys miss all over the field. When he’s back there and he starts scrambling, good things happen.”

Pokornowski has scholarship offers from Division II Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota-Crookston. He’s leaning toward the Bulldogs, even though UMD could convert him to safety. In his typical understated and no-nonsense style, Pokornowski said he’d be fine with that. He admittedly likes having the ball in his hands on every play, but “I’ll make it happen.”

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