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Prep football: Hermantown dethrones Cloquet in Section 7AAAA to advance to state

Cloquet's Jordan Leimer makes the tackle on Hermantown's David Cornelius during Friday's section 7AAAA final at Public Schools Stadium. Dave Harwig / For the News Tribune1 / 3
Hermantown's Elliott Peterson makes a catch in front of Cloquet's Trey Harkins during Friday night's section 7AAAA final at Public Schools Stadium. Dave Harwig / For the News Tribune2 / 3
Hermantown quarterback Tate Hansen throws a pass during Friday's section 7AAAA final vs. Cloquet at Public Schools Stadium. Dave Harwig / For the News Tribune3 / 3

Hermantown's football team limped to an uncharacteristic 3-7 record in 2017. Then, on June 27, the Hawks learned their longtime and lovable head coach, Daryl Illikainen, was resigning to take a teaching position in Orono, Minn., where he and wife Joy would be closer to their two children.

Mike Zagelmeyer was named Illikainen's successor in late July, less than a month before the season kicked off. Zagelmeyer, previously an assistant, had a lot to accomplish and little time to do it.

That adversity was a distant memory Friday night at Public Schools Stadium, where Hermantown held off Cloquet 20-14 in a spirited Section 7AAAA final.

"I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of this team," Zagelmeyer said after jumping around on the PSS turf with his players. "From the beginning, when they could have doubted and they could have questioned what we were trying to do ... coming off a difficult season last year, then losing their head coach.

"This is all about a coaching staff and a bunch of kids coming together."

By avenging a 14-0 loss to Cloquet in the regular-season finale, the second-seeded Hawks (9-1) return to their first state tournament since 2015. They celebrated accordingly, with their student section emptying onto the field as the final seconds ticked away.

When Zagelmeyer took over, he knew he wanted to tweak a few things. No wholesale changes, just added wrinkles. That meant a more prominent role for quarterback Tate Hansen, and the senior proved up to the challenge despite coming into the year not knowing if he'd even be the starter.

Hansen has been hit hard by injuries — tears to both ACLs, plus a meniscus — which have hijacked much of his prep football career. None of that mattered Friday when he confidently completed 10 of 15 passed for 136 yards and one touchdown.

"Everybody says they like to prove people wrong, and I definitely had a lot of doubters through all my knee surgeries," Hansen said. "But what I liked best is proving people right — the people that stuck with me, trusted that I could do this. It was a good support group, and I like proving them right."

"He's unbelievable," said Hermantown senior Elliott Peterson, who caught five passes for 71 yards. "At the start of the season, we didn't know who it was going to be, but he stepped up."

Standout senior David Cornelius was his usual productive self for the Hawks, carrying the ball 25 times for 131 yards and two scores, the second of which came 24 seconds before halftime and capped a momentum-turning drive that cut the Lumberjacks' lead to 14-12 at the break. Hansen twice found Peterson for long gains on the march, including a 28-yarder on third down.

No. 1 Cloquet (8-2), the two-time defending section champ and last year's runner-up in Class AAAA, received a blow earlier Friday when Markus Pokornowski, who injured his shoulder during a semifinal win over Duluth Denfeld, was ruled out. The talented and physical junior had rushed for 1,351 yards and 22 TDs, and also was Cloquet's leading tackler on defense.

Earlier in the week, Lumberjacks coach Tom Lenarz said they thought Pokornowski would be good to go. But an X-ray Friday determined otherwise.

"Trainers didn't want to take a chance, and that's the right call," Lenarz said. "He's a person first, football player second. We have to make sure he's safe."

Losing a player of Pokornowski's caliber stings, the coach said, but it didn't determine the outcome.

"Honestly, I don't feel like that was the difference in the game," Lenarz said.

Cornelius started the scoring from 3 yards out on the opening drive, but Cloquet took the lead on the first play of the second quarter. Later in the second, Lenarz surprised many when he brought on Alex Leuzzo to punt from the Hawks' 37-yard line, but Leuzzo tucked his kick just inside the goal-line pylon, pinning Hermantown inside its own 1. The Hawks went three-and-out, and their punt traveled all of 7 yards.

Ryan Badger promptly ran in from 9 yards out as the Lumberjacks' cushion increased to 14-6.

In the third quarter, Hansen closed the scoring when, on fourth-and-4, he double-pumped before finding Noah Torgerson open in the flats. Torgerson made one tackler miss, slipped to the outside, then danced the sideline for a 22-yard TD that gave the Hawks the lead for good.

And a spot in the state tournament.

"It means everything," Hansen said. "Your senior year, wrapping up the season with all your best friends, and it means everything to be going through all this with your brothers."

Hermantown 6-6-8-0—20

Cloquet 0-14-0-0—14

H — David Cornelius 3 run (kick failed)

C — Andre Peters 8 run (Noah Niemi kick)

C — Ryan Badger 9 run (Niemi kick)

H — Cornelius 1 run (run failed)

H — Noah Torgerson 22 pass from Tate Hansen (Cornelius run)