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Cherry High School football is back from the brink

IRON -- After his team suffered another lopsided loss Friday against Cook County, Cherry football coach Justin Bakkethun tinged his postgame message with optimism.

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Austin Landfried slaps hands as he runs through a tunnel of his Cherry Tigers teammates onto the Cherry High School football field Friday. The team played against the Cook County High School Vikings. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

IRON - After his team suffered another lopsided loss Friday against Cook County, Cherry football coach Justin Bakkethun tinged his postgame message with optimism.
Sure, Bakkethun made a plea for better execution and fewer mistakes, but the third-year coach didn’t linger on the 46-8 score or the Tigers’ 0-6 record.
“As far as I’m concerned, you guys played hard, you didn’t quit, and I love that about this team,” Bakkethun told his players near the 50-yard line at Tom Koskela Memorial Field.
A moral victory, perhaps, but Bakkethun is simply glad he has a club to coach. Cherry was forced to cancel its final two games of 2014 after injuries whittled the Tigers’ roster to 11 players. The program was on life support.
Nobody was ready to pull the plug.
Upperclassmen put on a full-court recruiting press that yielded first-timers like seniors Devin Mayry and Zach Graves. Cherry returned this August with 21 players, though that number was 19 on Friday.
“That’s part of the reason I joined this year,” Mayry said. “This is my first year of varsity football. I wanted the seniors this year to have a good experience and to have a team.
“I didn’t want to graduate and live with regrets the rest of my life of not playing football.”
Challenges remain.
Even with the surge in participation, the Tigers are a lean-looking bunch. As they celebrated homecoming Friday afternoon, their sideline was surprisingly sparse. Practices often require creativity - a coach suiting up or scrimmaging 7-on-7 if there are absences - and contact is limited to reduce the risk of injury.
“It’s hard going against some of the younger kids because you don’t want to hurt them, you want them to stay on the team,” 6-foot-4 senior Tim Clement said.
Clement released some of that pent-up aggression with a couple bone-jarring hits against Cook County.
With so many fresh faces in his program, Bakkethun has scaled back his expectations. He is focused on the process, a reality that was highlighted by his halftime talk Friday, when he spent more time teaching than scheming for the second half. Speaking easy and with no bluster, Bakkethun discussed and demonstrated proper blocking techniques. He also asked his players what was working and what wasn’t.
The mood was light, even more so after a sprinting Hunter Ersbo, returning from his homecoming court duties at midfield, entered the huddle via a prolonged head-first dive along the wet grass.
“We need to stay positive throughout the game,” Graves said. “We’re never going to get better if we’re always negative and down on ourselves.”
Said Bakkethun: “These kids are highly upbeat, and that says a lot about their character.”
The 40-year-old Bakkethun, who also coaches boys track and field at Virginia, sees hope on the horizon. He said enrollment numbers in the lower grades are increasing at Cherry, and community support never has wavered, not during the team’s 21-game losing streak from 2010-13, and not now.
Losing the program, Bakkethun said, would be a blow to the school, which has just three boys sports teams that aren’t part of a co-op.
Recent struggles aside, it wasn’t that long ago - 2002 - that the Tigers were playing in the state tournament.
Bakkethun’s short-term goals for the Tigers are more modest. For starters, he’d like to see their unwavering commitment rewarded with a victory.
“I know at times it’s been frustrating for myself and the team because I feel these kids deserve to win,” Bakkethun said. “For as hard as they’ve worked in practice and as hard as they’ve worked on the football field during games, it’s frustrating sometimes to look at the scoreboard.”
That frustration was alleviated a couple times Friday vs. the Vikings. With fans lining the fence and the school band playing, Cherry opened the game with a successful onside kick. Late in the first half, Ersbo broke free for a 56-yard touchdown that energized his teammates and the crowd.
And while the good vibes were fleeting, it wasn’t a lost cause. It still was a football Friday. Clement, for one, vowed earlier this season to enjoy his final go-round on the gridiron regardless of wins and losses. He remembers the feeling last year when he thought his career would end prematurely.
“Last year the juniors were playing like it was their senior year,” Clement said. “We were going out there and giving it our all because we didn’t know if we were going to have a team the next year.”
Losing has been tough this fall.
It sure beats not playing at all.

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