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Cloquet carries off big upset to rise as Section 7AA threat

Things had fallen into a comfortable little pattern among Up North high school hockey teams. Duluth East and Greenway of Coleraine were established as the best, with Hibbing and Cloquet a notch behind, and Grand Rapids a notch behind them. Nice, ...

Things had fallen into a comfortable little pattern among Up North high school hockey teams. Duluth East and Greenway of Coleraine were established as the best, with Hibbing and Cloquet a notch behind, and Grand Rapids a notch behind them. Nice, tight top five among the Class AA teams Up North.
That pattern seemed likely to hold, going into the traditional holiday tournament break, until mid-January, when East plays Greenway in a major showdown. But the scenario was disrupted a bit last week, when Cloquet ambushed Greenway 3-1. Except Greenway coach Pat Guyer says it was no ambush at all.
The Lumberjacks are as quick as any team in the state, and quicker than almost all of them. They skate hard, with three lines going all out, every shift, and a solid defense, led by Clay Wilson, plus Josh Johnson's consistently good goaltending. Despite those obvious assets, the graduation of its top line -- Ryan Langenbrunner, Adam Laaksonen and Nate Cary -- meant that over 90 percent of last year's impressive scoring punch was gone.
So for all their speed, the Lumberjacks played like whirling dervishes against everybody, but when they did it against the top teams, such as Duluth East and White Bear Lake, they came up short in 3-1 games because those foes were able to cope with Cloquet's speed.
But Greenway coach Guyer watched the East-Cloquet game, and saw what was in store for his Raiders, which is why last Friday's game was no ambush.
"They're relentless," said Guyer. "But we knew that coming in. I saw them play East, and we told our guys this would be the best team we've played so far this season. They're quick, and they don't quit coming at you. We warned our players, told 'em, preached it all week, so I know we didn't underestimate 'em a bit."
The difference in that game was that it was 1-1 into the third period, with Cloquet's Travis Fast scoring a goal that was countered by Greenway's Dan Mell, on a deflection of Mike Dagel's point blast, in the first period. Brandon Sell scored on a power-play rebound early in the third, and the surprise was that the Lumberjacks then pressed the attack, taking play to Greenway the rest of the way. Cloquet outshot Greenway 18-4 in the third period, didn't allow a shot to get to Johnson during the last 10 minutes, and had a 33-15 edge for the game.
The continued pressure made the Raiders look drained, and led to a clinching goal, when Wilson moved up from defense to score on a rebound. It was fitting that the score in the turnaround game for Cloquet was also 3-1 -- the same counts by which the 'Jacks had lost to East and White Bear Lake.
"We're 5-2, which means we've played 21 periods," said coach Dave Esse. "And our guys have not taken one period off. When this one was over, I almost cried on the bench, I was so happy for the kids. We've played this way all year, but we finished tonight."
Maybe the most significant thing that came out of the the game was the creation of a monster in Section 7. The Lumberjacks knew they were good, but they also had to wonder if they could ever keep it up and win against an elite team. They didn't do it against East, they didn't do it against White Bear Lake, but they did do it to Greenway, and the Lumberjacks are going to be a handful for everyone from here in.
Cloquet's next test will come on Thursday night when they take on Hastings during the Raiders' Classic Tournament. The tournament also features Elk River, Burnsville and Holy Angels, making it one of the toughest holiday tournaments in the state.
Eagan honors Darwitz
The most electrifying girls high school hockey player in the state was back on familiar turf last week -- the ice sheet at Eagan's Community Center. Natalie Darwitz should be a junior on the Eagan team this season, but instead she's trying to keep up with classes by long-distance, from Lake Placid, N.Y., where she's playing on the U.S. women's development team.
Darwitz put girls high school hockey on television four years ago, when she was a mere seventh grader, but her skating and puck-skills were so advanced she had no trouble making the Eagan varsity. Making it? She scored 93 goals that season. The next year, as an eighth-grader, she scored 85 goals. Eagan was 27-1 that season, losing only in the state tournament. Two seasons ago, Darwitz scored 57 goals as a ninth-grader, and last year, despite being the focal point of every opponent, she scored 81 more goals.
With two seasons to go, Darwitz probably would have broken every state high school scoring record, girls and boys, but she gave in to the invitation to join Team USA in Lake Placid, where she's training every day with the returning members of the 1998 Nagano gold medal Olympic team.
When asked if she was having fun, she said she was learning a lot by playing with the top players in the U.S. program, but that for fun, Lake Placid was pretty boring. Especially for a bright young girl, just 16. She is missed by Eagan's team, and its hockey fans, and she is missed by the state and the state's media, which couldn't miss recording a big feature every time they came to watch her play.
Eagan's ex-coach Merlin Ravndalen, who quit when Natalie left -- although he says it's because his wife was about to have the couple's third daughter -- put together a wonderful night for Natalie Darwitz last week at Eagan. All the members of this year's Eagan team, and the future players on all the girls youth teams in Eagan were on the ice for a ceremony in which Darwitz's No. 20 Eagan jersey was officially retired.
Eagan will play in the prestigious Kaposia Classic tournament at South St. Paul this weekend, along with Hibbing, Jefferson, South St. Paul and others, but the Wildcats aren't the same -- and nowhere near as formidible -- with Darwitz in the stands instead of at center-ice. That tournament is Hibbing's chance to prove it belongs among the state's elite.

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