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Section 7A track: Esko boys and girls enjoying banner seasons

Stankiewicz and company have made their mark this season.

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Esko senior Gage Stankiewicz practices throwing the discus Wednesday, April 6, 2021. Stankiewicz qualified for the state meet in the discus as a sophomore in 2019. (Jamey Malcomb / File / jmalcomb@pinejournal.com)

Esko track and field coaches were always wondering how far it was to the baseball infield from the discus throwing circle at Cloquet High School.

Nobody ever bothered to measure it because they had never known anybody who could throw it that far.

Well, at the last-chance meet May 27, Esko senior Gage Stankiewicz found out, hitting the infield 176 feet away.

“We were joking after that, ‘Well, I guess we know where the baseball infield is,’” Esko track coach Matt Peterson said. “We were all like, ‘Oh, oh,’ that’s getting out there.’”

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Stankiewicz won the discus and finished second to Barnum’s Garrett Coughlin in the shot put last week as Esko swept both the boys and girls Section 7A South Subsection team titles. That was the first time the Esko girls won it since 2016 while the boys won it in 2019. Esko also swept the Polar League titles this season.

“We’ve had a good year so far,” Peterson said, laughing.

Peterson coaches the girls team while Gary Beaudot coaches the boys. The Esko girls haven’t won the section title since 2012.

The two programs qualified nearly 50 athletes for the section finals.

“What’s crazy about it is that both teams are very young,” Peterson said.

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Esko’s Gwendolyn Lilly, right, clears a hurdle just ahead of Northwestern’s Lily Nichols to take second place in the 100 meter hurdles at the Packy Paquette Invitational at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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Esko will be looking to challenge the likes of Mesabi East and Rock Ridge, a co-op of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert, for the girls team title while the boys will look to challenge Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin and Rock Ridge for the boys team title. It’s almost the same Mesabi East girls team that won the section two years ago except one Ava Hill, but that’s one big exception (Hill is now running for Minnesota).

Esko traditionally loads up on the relays, trying to qualify as many athletes as possible for the state meet. The Eskomos only have six seniors but they’ve got a couple good ones: Stankiewicz in the throwing events and Dylan Edland in the hurdles.

“It’s interesting when you talk about our boys team,” Peterson said. “Our boys team doesn’t have a lot of heavy hitters. Gary just has a lot of good depth, picking away at it at subsections with a lot of thirds and fourths.”

The Esko girls only have two seniors. Again, they got a couple good ones in Zoie Johnson (throwing events) and Allison Thornton (high jump, relays).

Stankiewicz and Johnson are something special.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with them since they were eighth-graders,” said Peterson, who specializes in the throwing events. “Throws are kind of my thing.”

Johnson is making her mark in track even as she competes as a power-hitting first baseman in softball. She is the daughter of Minnesota Duluth Hall of Famer Kerrick Johnson, who was the first Bulldogs male athlete to ever capture an NCAA individual title in any sport, which he accomplished in the 1992 NCAA Division II indoor shot put and 1993 DII outdoor discus.

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Zoie Johnson will play college volleyball at Augsburg.

“Zoie is unbelievably talented,” Peterson said. “With all the attention shown toward Gage, Zoie has kind of been lost in the shuffle,” Peterson said. “Right now, she has the third-best throw in the state of Minnesota in Class A in the discus at 121-10.”

Among other Esko standouts are junior Emily Rengo and eight-grader Kaitlyn McConnell in the sprints and relays.

“We’re hopeful,” Peterson said. “We’re hoping we can squeak out a section title for the first time in nine years. We’re hoping.”

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Esko’s Keone Anderson, 11th grade, is the first to cross the finish line in the 4x800 relay at the Packy Paquette Invitational at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

Among boys, both GNK and Rock Ridge have the “big hitters” Peterson was referring to. The boys 800 and 1,600 meter races Thursday will be state-caliber, with Rock Ridge sophomore Cameron Stocke and Isaac Swanson both running sub-2 minutes at subsections. Stocke will continue his rivalry with GNK senior Geno Uhrbom in the 1,600. Uhrbom swept the Class A 1,600 and 3,200 titles as a sophomore but wasn’t able to defend his titles last year due to COVID-19.

“Those are top-five matchups in the state,” Peterson said. “It’s going to be great — I can’t wait to watch it. There’ll be a lot of fun stuff to watch on Thursday. Hopefully the weather holds out and it’s not blazing hot (he laughed, knowing how that feels).”

Another one to watch will be Stankiewicz. When he throws the discus, people take notice.

Stankiewicz didn’t just break Esko’s school discus record this year. He shattered it.

The record was held by Bill Hudspith, a toss of 162-7 in 1975.

“It was relieving,” Stankiewicz said. “My grandpa and I both knew I would break it this year, and I’m glad I was able to get over that wall.”

Stankiewicz went 169-9 April 20 at Moose Lake when it was 30 degrees and snowing. One of the people who couldn’t have been more proud was Hudspith, who works with Esko’s throwers.

“Gage has taken that record and is running away with it,” Peterson said. “There’s a great picture that Angie Hudspith, Bill’s daughter, took of the two of them standing together right afterwards. It was a good moment.”

The current record is the 178-4 that Stankiewicz tossed at the Packy Paquette Invitational May 21 in Superior, giving him Minnesota Class A’s best mark for a time. The Eskomos can only imagine what’s next.

“That’s a bomb,” Peterson said. “I know as of (Monday night), he was on the phone with North Dakota State, so he’s starting to get a lot of attention. I’d venture to guess that everyone in the Midwest will reach out to him now. It’s just a matter of what he decides.”

This story was edited at 12:38 p.m. to correct an inconsistency in references to Esko athlete Zoie Johnson. It was originally posted at 12:00.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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