Young setter helps make Cloquet a playoff contender

The Cloquet volleyball team's playoff hopes partially rest on the shoulders of a girl who doesn't attend the high school and isn't even old enough to drive.

The Cloquet volleyball team's playoff hopes partially rest on the shoulders of a girl who doesn't attend the high school and isn't even old enough to drive.

The progression of 14-year-old setter Alexandra Oakes, an eighth-grader at Cloquet Middle School, has the Lumberjacks among the contenders as the Section 7AA playoffs begin today.

Cloquet (17-9) earned a No. 2 seed in its subsection behind Esko and opens play tonight with a first-round match against Proctor.

Oakes played sparingly as a seventh-grader, spending most of her time conquering nerves.

"I was very nervous last year," she said, "but it was so easy for me to get my confidence built up because my teammates helped me so much. They've been there for me the whole time."


Cloquet coach Heidi Anderson said she's proud how Oakes has handled the situation.

"As a seventh-grader playing against Hibbing, that's intimidating," Anderson said. "Now she's had a lot of experience and is getting stronger every game. I'm really impressed with how she's doing, and she's fitting in just fine with the other setters in the area that are much older than her."

The Lumberjacks' finest moment was defeating Hermantown (17-9) twice, once in the Esko Invitational and again to end the Hawks' nine-year unbeaten run atop the Lake Superior Conference. Those teams are slated to meet again in the semifinals.

"Beating Hermantown definitely gave us some confidence," Anderson said, "but it made me nervous because we've beaten them in that tournament before and turned around and played them a week-and-a-half later and they've smoked us in the past."

Oakes, whose mother, Lisa, teaches Spanish at Hermantown High School, says those victories have the players feeling good about their chances.

"We've been working so hard together, and I think we have the momentum to beat teams that we haven't beat in the past," she said. "I feel super confident going into playoffs."

Esko (25-1) is favored to end Hibbing's stranglehold on the section. The Bluejackets (10-16) have played in seven consecutive state tournaments, but this might be the senior-laden Eskomos' year.

"We have a very solid, deep group," Esko coach Desi DeLeon said. "I feel with our depth and our experience, it should be a fun postseason. We certainly have high hopes."


Section 7AAA

Home court could aid Duluth East

Home advantage isn't just on the football field, but on the volleyball court as well. Duluth East hopes to take advantage of that advantage in Section 7AAA.

The Greyhounds (20-7) are seeded second -- the best during coach Kevin Flynn's reign -- and, if victorious, will play at least two matches at home, likely against teams that haven't traveled to Duluth.

"Heck, professional athletes struggle to win on the road, and these are high school kids," Flynn said. "That's huge for us to get the 2 vs. the 3 seed. We want to win our two matches at home and find ourselves in the final."

Since 7AAA plays at the site of the higher seed rather than at a neutral court, that final would be at Anoka barring an upset.

East went 23-4 a year ago but traveled to Forest Lake and lost in the section semifinals. With setter Faye Lafferty, outside hitter Sadie Kunst and middle hitter Elena Lushine (set single-season block record) playing at a high level, East is in the running to qualify for the state tournament for the first time in 20 years.

"I think we have as good a chance as any to make it," Flynn said. "Our strength is if we're in system and if we can get the ball to Sadie and Elena. When we're on, we match up well with other teams."


Despite having a much better record than Elk River and Andover, Grand Rapids (19-7) was seeded fifth.


Several teams vying for title

Deer River must run a gantlet of quality teams to make a run at a third straight section title.

The Warriors (14-12-2) are seeded fourth in Subsection 2, face Floodwood in tonight's second round and potentially top-seeded Cherry (18-2), No. 2 Orr (18-3) or

No. 3 Chisholm (18-7) in later rounds.

Cook County (17-3), Babbitt-Embarrass (16-6) and Carlton (12-13) are among the teams that await in Subsection 1 in what is one of the most wide-open section races in recent memory.

"There's a lot of good teams, and a lot of teams that haven't faced each other," said Deer River coach Connie Boyum-Erzar, whose team only lost once to a Class A team this season.

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