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Prep football: Esko has ‘a little bit of everything’ in 2022

The Eskomos went undefeated in the regular season and made it to the Class AAA state semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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Esko junior Makoi Perich, left, and senior Nolan Witt. Both are two-way starters hoping their team will see the inside of U.S. Bank Stadium come November. Last season, Perich rushed for 644 yards, while Witt rushed for 903 yards.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal
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ESKO — At the end of practice Monday, August 22, Esko’s players lined up for a little friendly competition and maybe some bragging rights.

Coaches set up motion sensors on the field and players started running the 40-yard dash, with their times showing up on a clock at the end of the field. The short sprint is used primarily to evaluate speed and acceleration for football players, most famously at the annual NFL Combine.

While linemen and other bigger players were clocking times of nearly six seconds, many of the Esko skill players were passing the finish line in around 5 seconds. Others, like Makoi Perich and Carter Zezulka, were significantly faster.

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Esko junior Makoi Perich reaches for the ball during practice on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 in Esko. Last season, Perich notched 15 receptions for over 260 yards.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal

Zezulka’s best time was under 4.7 seconds and Perich was approaching 4.5 seconds. For comparison, the fastest 40 time at the 2022 combine was Kalon Barnes, a cornerback from Baylor drafted by the Carolina Panthers, with a time of 4.23 seconds.

The Eskomos don’t have anyone with that type of speed, but Perich and Zezulka were half of the Esko relay team last spring that was “five steps ahead” in the 400-yard relay at the Minnesota Class A track meet, according to Perich. Perich’s older brother Mason suffered an injury in the final leg and the Eskomos did not finish the race, but the team they led early — Minneapolis North — set a Class A record for the event.

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Esko has plenty of speed returning, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

“We’re fast, we’re explosive and we’re strong,” Perich said. “We’ve got a little bit of everything.”

Esko went 11-1 in 2021 and ended its season with a 21-14 loss to eventual state champion Dassel-Cokato , but the Eskomos return most of the team, including the entire offensive backfield in Perich, Ty Christenson, Nolan Witt and Javontae Gregory.

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Esko quarterback Ty Christensen practices throws on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. Last season, Christensen passed for over 890 yards.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal

The biggest losses from the 2021 squad are on the offensive and defensive lines in starters Dan DeMuth, Cole Engen and Rusty Anderson.

The 2022 version is “more athletic than big” and while the trio's departure will hurt, the team has been in the weight room all summer and has plenty of potential, according to coach Scott Arntson.

“If you look at the sum of the five, I think we are just as solid,” Arntson said. “Our junior linemen were really good and now they’re senior linemen.”

The backfield and Zezulka — a wide receiver who returned an interception for a touchdown and caught the game-winning pass from Christenson in the state quarterfinal against New London-Spicer — all have significant experience.

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Esko senior linebacker and wide reciever Carter Zezulka practices blocking on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Esko. Last season, Zezulka led the team with over 360 receiving yards and over 53 tackles.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal

“They’re so familiar with the offense and defense that they pick up things really quick, so that’s helpful,” Arntson said. “I don’t want to get too creative and not let the kids just play, but they pick things up pretty quickly…Today, for example, we installed something and all I did was say what it was and they knew what they were doing.”

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Arntson said he would like to have a little more balance this season, but the offensive play calls will continue to be situational.

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Esko senior and two-way starter Nolan Witt runs the ball at practice on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Esko. Last season, Witt led the team with an average of over 8 yards per carry.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal

“Last year, we started getting into a pretty good rhythm,” Arnston said. “I would like to pass the ball a little more this year than we did last year, but all of that will be dictated in the game, matchups and what’s working for us.”

While the Eskomos have plenty of talent, Arntson and his team aren’t taking anything for granted. He said if everything breaks right, Esko could be “in the mix” for a state championship, but they have to get through Section 7AAA first.

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Esko senior and two-way starter Javontae Gregory runs through the ropes at practice on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 in Esko. Last season, Gregory rushed for over 200 yards.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal

Aitken is always a tough matchup and Two Harbors has added Silver Bay to its existing cooperative agreement with Duluth Marshall and Lakeview Christian Academy. In addition, Rock Ridge is a big program that could make a leap in its second year.

While they are taking it one game at a time, the goal is a return to state and hopefully two more wins and Perich thinks this could be the team to do it.

“Everyone’s got experience on the squad,” Perich said. “We know what we want, we know in crunch time, we’ve got it. I just hope we can pull through this year.”

Esko is scheduled to open the season at 6 p.m. September 2 at Duluth Denfeld.

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Esko junior starter Joey Antonutti carries the ball during practice on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Esko. Last season, Antonutti rushed for over 213 yards.
Amy Arntson / For the Pine Journal
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Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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