Prep football playoff preview: Cloquet ready to defend title

On one hand, Cloquet football coach Tom Lenarz is in an enviable position. The undefeated Lumberjacks are seeded first for the Section 7AAAA playoffs, have a first-round bye tonight and are just two victories away from returning to the state tour...

Cloquet’s Hunter Roberts will help lead the top-seeded Lumberjacks into the Section 7AAAA high school football playoffs. (2014 file / News Tribune)

On one hand, Cloquet football coach Tom Lenarz is in an enviable position. The undefeated Lumberjacks are seeded first for the Section 7AAAA playoffs, have a first-round bye tonight and are just two victories away from returning to the state tournament.
On the other hand, Lenarz is tasked with keeping his players grounded after they outscored eight opponents by a combined 351-48, including 200-12 in the final four weeks of the regular season.
Entering the postseason, Cloquet hasn’t faced much opposition.
“There were games throughout the year that were maybe a little more competitive than what the score indicated,” Lenarz said Monday. “For us, it’s good to be confident; we just have to guard against being overconfident.
“I think the kids get that.”
With a veteran club, the coach isn’t concerned about complacency creeping in.
“They understand that the teams in the playoffs are going to be better.” Lenarz said. “They’ll adjust.”
The Lumberjacks, as well as No. 2 Hermantown (7-1), are off tonight. Defending section champ Cloquet will hook up with the winner of No. 5 Grand Rapids (0-8) and fourth-seeded Hibbing (1-7) on Saturday. Because of field conditions, that semifinal will be played at Public Schools Stadium.
“Our field just really took a beating this year,” Lenarz said. “We had a week where there were six straight days of rain, and of course during that time we had three soccer games and two football games, so we don’t have any grass left from about the 25 (yard line) to the 25.”
The other semifinal pits the Hawks against either No. 6 Duluth Denfeld (0-8) or No. 3 Princeton (4-4).
A year after snapping a 26-year state tournament drought, Cloquet has all the firepower needed to repeat, on both sides of the ball. Four players - Kyle Klatt (719 yards), Hunter Roberts (409), Zach Gerlach (354) and Nate Weets (301) - have rushed for more than 300 yards in an offense that is averaging 43.9 points per night. Both Klatt and Gerlach have per-carry averages exceeding 11 yards.
Weets, meanwhile, has passed for 804 yards and 10 TDs. He has yet to be intercepted.
Defensively, the Lumberjacks boast four shutouts and are allowing six points per game. Weets noted how much it has helped him and the entire Lumberjack offense to repeatedly go against such a ruthless defense.
“We’ve been playing against one of the best defenses in the state every day at practice,” Weets said.
Cloquet’s stiffest test came Sept. 19 at Hermantown, where the Lumberjacks turned a 21-7 deficit into a 35-21 lead en route to a 35-28 victory. Against Proctor on Oct. 10, Cloquet led just 14-0 before scoring 28 fourth-quarter points in a 42-0 triumph.
Those challenges, sparse as they may have been, plus the experience of winning a section title in 2013, have the Lumberjacks convinced they’re battle-tested enough to defend their 7AAAA title.
“Most of us played a lot during last year’s run,” Weets said.
One of the things Lenarz has stressed throughout the fall is competitive practices. That included a recent stretch where the Lumberjacks split into two teams, which worked out separately for a few days before playing each other. The coaches placed a friendly wager on the outcome.
“Now I owe (defensive coordinator) Jeff Ojanen dinner, and I’m not happy about that,” Lenarz cracked.
-- Duluth East is the sixth seed in Section 7AAAAA. The Greyhounds (1-7) travel to No. 3 St. Francis (6-2) in a rematch of a Week 1 contest, won 55-0 by the Fighting Saints.
Class AAA
Eskomos seek to continue run
Perhaps the area’s most intriguing bracket belongs to Section 7AAA, where the fifth seed (Duluth Marshall) lost to the first seed (Esko) by a mere 10 points on Sept. 19.
The Eskomos (6-2) grew up in a hurry after back-to-back losses to start the year. They have won six straight, including a Week 5 blowout of then-No. 7 Two Harbors, thanks to an offense that clicked in a big way after a mere eight-point output against Cloquet in the season opener. Quarterback Nick Emanuel, running back Jaxson Turner and receiver Aaron Olson are game-changers.
The second-seeded Agates have been difficult to figure out. They climbed into Class AAA’s top 10 after a dominant 4-0 start before stumbling to a 36-14 defeat against Esko - a game in which Two Harbors scored the first 14 points. The Agates bounced back with a decisive victory over Marshall and, perhaps even more impressive, a narrow loss at Moose Lake-Willow River.
Led by running backs Lucas Kempffer (828 yards) and Kyler Kinn (733), Two Harbors is 6-2 and looking to qualify for the state tournament for the first time since 1977.
No. 3 Proctor (4-4) has appeared in the past two section finals, losing to Esko in 2012 and beating the Eskomos a year ago en route to the Class AAA semifinals, where the Rails lost a defensive slugfest 3-0 to eventual state champ St. Croix Lutheran.
Marshall (3-5) travels to No. 4 Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin (3-5) for the quarterfinals. The Hilltoppers are coming off a spirited performance against Moose Lake-Willow River in which they led 13-7 at halftime. Marshall ultimately lost 36-26, but it was the perfect postseason tuneup, according to coach Jim Hogan.
“I think I said it last year and I’ll keep saying it - there’s no better team to play going into the playoffs than Moose Lake,” Hogan said. “You see the best and that’s going to help us (against the Titans).
Class AA
MLWR could be challenged
Not only has Moose Lake-Willow River won each of the past eight Section 7AA titles, but rarely have the Rebels even been challenged. MLWR has outscored its opponents 322-93 in those eight section finals, an average margin of victory of 40.3-11.6.
Only one was close, and that was way back in 2006 when the Rebels started their state tournament streak by slipping past Deer River 13-12. Since then, it’s been one snoozefest after another, including last year’s 62-6 drubbing of Mesabi East.
That could change this time around as Crosby-Ironton, the No. 2 seed, looks every bit like a bona fide contender for MLWR’s throne. In fact, the teams are slotted 1-2 in the latest Quality Results Formula, the statewide metric used to seed section playoffs. The Rebels (7-1) are first, the Rangers (8-0) second. If they do meet, it would be in the section championship game Oct. 30 at PSS.
Both teams have a first-round bye in six-team Section 7AA. The quarterfinals feature No. 3 Mesabi East (5-3) hosting No. 6 Rush City (1-7) and No. 4 Eveleth-Gilbert (4-4) hosting No. 5 Hinckley-Finlayson (3-5).
Cromwell looks to refocus
Cromwell entered last week’s game at Nevis looking for its first 8-0 regular season since 2007. Instead, the Cardinals (7-1) were grounded in a 32-18 defeat.
“They exposed a few things that we need to get better at and work on,” Cromwell coach Jeff Gronner said of the Tigers, who reside in Section 6.
Gronner’s club will carry the No. 1 seed in Section 5 as it looks to earn its first state tournament berth since 2010, when the Cardinals were 4-4 before a stunning postseason run ended with a state title.
Seeded second is South Ridge (7-1), which reloaded after graduating so many skill-position players from last year’s offensive juggernaut. Wrenshall (6-2) is third and defending section champ Floodwood (5-3) fourth. Both are capable of upsetting the apple cart.
“I think any of the top four teams in our section are capable of winning it,” Gronner said.
Cromwell combines a stingy defense with an offense led by running back Tyler Hakamaki (897 rushing yards and 15 TDs) and QB Zion Smith (772 passing yards, 368 rushing, 15 total TDs).
Gronner hopes last week’s loss serves as a wake-up call.
“If it had happened next week, our season would have been done, but as it is hopefully it will refocus our guys,” the coach said.
-- Travis Hooper (1,320 rushing yards and 19 TDs) and North Woods (8-0) ran the table en route to a No. 1 seed in Section 7. Ely (6-2), the section champ a year ago when it advanced to the state semifinals, is seeded second.

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