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Prep football: All-senior backfield gives Cloquet weapons of mass production

Cloquet High School’s senior backfield: halfbacks Mitchell Gerlach (from the left) and Spencer Wehr, quarterback Tim Pokornowski and running back Aahsan Maigag. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

At their first game-week practice of a fresh new football season, Cloquet’s skill guys sounded like they had just come from a public relations seminar.

Experienced and accomplished, they will be vying for the same football on Friday nights this fall. They’re fine with that, especially if the end result mirrors last year’s trip to the Class AAAA state tournament. In other words, there won’t be any needless lobbying of Lumberjacks coach Tom Lenarz for carries.

“It’s just whatever the coach wants,” senior running back Spencer Wehr said. “As long as we’re doing good, I’m fine with however many times I get it.”

That’s precisely how Wehr’s backfield mate, Aahsan Maigag, sees things.

“Our success as a team, to me, is better than the individual achievements,” Maigag, another senior, said.

It doesn’t make for good copy, but it does bode well for Cloquet’s Section 7AAAA title defense.

“The ultimate goal for all of us is to win football games, win a section championship, go to the state tournament,” Lenarz said. “Those are all goals that you set, so to worry about whether Spencer’s going to get the ball, or Aahsan, or (QB) Timmy (Pokornowski) … first of all, I just don’t believe in that approach. And I think these kids get it.”

The equal-opportunity offense will look strikingly similar to last season when neighboring Esko visits Friday night.

A year ago, Wehr’s 953 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns were tops. Maigag totaled 813 and five before breaking his hand in the Lumberjacks’ section final win over Princeton, which preceded a 42-7 loss to Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the state quarterfinals. For good measure, Gerlach chipped in 495 yards on the ground.

Then there’s Pokornowski, the dual-threat QB who weaves it all together. He gives Cloquet something it seldom has had — an aerial element. In 2016, Pokornowski completed 72 of 142 pass attempts for 955 yards and seven TDs. He and Gerlach are seniors.

Pokornowski, 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, made himself impossible to ignore as a junior. His coming-out party arrived Sept. 30 at Hermantown, where he amassed 211 yards and two long TDs on 10-for-16 passing in a 27-16 victory. Pokornowski also can keep plays alive with his feet and, if nothing’s open, tuck it and take off (405 rushing yards as a junior).

This is an offense with few holes. Maigag and Gerlach are the speedy, shifty guys, while Wehr does his best work charging straight ahead, even if he’s quick to note, “I can still cut, though.”

“Spencer has some speed, too, but he just runs through kids,” Pokornowski said.

Pokornowski, Wehr and senior lineman Dylan Lauer all are getting looks from Division II colleges, according to Lenarz.

The coach admits he hasn’t been in this situation often since taking over at Cloquet in 2003, in which so many key positions are occupied by skilled returners. It makes his job, and that of assistant Paul Riess, who has a hand in calling plays, easier. Aside from the myriad options they can utilize to expose defenses, the veterans understand the offense well enough to “make some adjustments on the fly,” Lenarz said.

What’s an opposing defensive coordinator to do?

“I think, obviously, it’s going to be hard to stop,” Maigag said.

The win over Hermantown last September left the Lumberjacks at 4-1. They dropped two of their final three regular-season games before routing a pair of playoff foes to reach their third state tournament in four years.

The road back is likely to be more difficult, with Hermantown and Duluth Denfeld improved and Grand Rapids sliding in from Section 7AAAAA.

Cloquet is motivated by the lopsided conclusion to 2016. Benilde-St. Margaret’s ran wild that November night.

“We didn’t end the way we wanted to last year. We got beat by a better team — there’s no question about it,” Lenarz said. “So we have to make sure we work to get to a point where we can compete at that level.”

Duluth East: New district, old rivalries

When the Minnesota State High School League introduced district football in 2015, the chief objective was to alleviate scheduling nightmares. Programs were (mostly) organized by geography and lumped together in smaller sub-districts based on enrollment. And while change is about as popular as a tax increase, for the most part, the new setup has worked.

Duluth East would have begged to differ the past two years.

The Northland’s largest school was slotted in the rugged and far-reaching North Central District. Last spring, though, the Greyhounds got their wish — relocation to the locally based Northeast.

Goodbye, Monticello, St. Francis and Chisago Lakes Area. Hello, Hermantown, Cloquet and Proctor.

“We’re beyond excited to be able to play this schedule,” East coach Joe Hietala said. “We have natural rivalries with most of the teams we’re playing.”

Minus a cross-town trek to Denfeld, East’s 2016 road trips were to Princeton, Lindstrom and St. Francis twice. This time around, the Greyhounds go to North Branch, Hermantown, Grand Rapids and Hibbing. Home contests feature Big Lake, Proctor, Denfeld and Cloquet.

“I’ll take a road trip to Hermantown as opposed to Monticello,” Hietala said. “What a Godsend that is, to be able to spend 15 minutes on the bus to get to a game instead of three hours one way.”

East also should benefit in the win-loss column. The North Central was a gauntlet, rife with teams that play a different brand of football. It’s no surprise, then, that the Greyhounds last won more than two games in 2011, when they were 3-6.

Facing like-minded opponents should help. And it should help the atmosphere on Friday nights. It became a tough sell to get students revved up for a home tilt against a far-flung foe.

“It’s a lot easier to get excited about playing Proctor than it is playing St. Michael-Albertville,” Hietala said.

The coach’s son, senior Luke Hietala, takes over for Jack Rashid at quarterback. He’ll have a dangerous cohort in senior athlete Joshua Daniels-Hanbury, who caught 63 passes for 774 yards and seven TDs last year. Daniels-Hanbury also averaged better than 5 yards a rush.

The Greyhounds remain in Section 7AAAAA.

Briefly

While Proctor fell a game short of its third state tournament in four years thanks to a last-second defeat to Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin, the Rails once again should contend in Section 7AAA, even with the departure of all-world John Aase. Senior lineman Kaleb Stevens is among the area’s best players.

Proctor breaks in newly turfed Terry Egerdahl Memorial Field on Friday vs. International Falls.

Elsewhere in 7AAA, Two Harbors is on the upswing despite the loss of 17 seniors. Spencer Ross (105 yards in last week’s 35-6 win over Crosby-Ironton), Ricky Brenna (134 yards, two TDs) and Chad Nordean (61, two) give the Agates a stable of runners.

  • Virginia and International Falls met in a “zero week” opener, and the two clubs will close the regular season against each other, right back in International Falls. That’s because both were a game short when Duluth Marshall canceled a second consecutive season.

The Blue Devils, with a talented senior class that includes 6-7, 300-pound lineman Bryce Kennedy — a South Dakota commit — could be a factor in 7AAA.

  • Grand Rapids had been the smallest school in Class AAAAA.
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