September 27, 2018 at 2:36 p.m.

North Branch crunches second-ranked Cloquet 18-14

North Branch crunches second-ranked Cloquet 18-14
North Branch crunches second-ranked Cloquet 18-14

Cloquet had North Branch’s number last year. The Lumberjacks beat North Branch at their own homecoming last year, and then ended their season in the section championship game before going on to finish second in the state tournament. It’s safe to say North Branch owed them one.

They got their measure of revenge this year by traveling  to Cloquet and taking it to the previously undefeated and second-ranked Lumberjacks 18-14.

In the early stages of the game, it looked like Cloquet would revert to 2017 form against North Branch. They busted a 38-yard touchdown run on their opening drive from Andre Peters to go up 6-0. He took a handoff to the left side and was nearly untouched as he dashed to the endzone. Nick Niemi missed the extra point, keeping the score to just a touchdown.

The Vikings quickly showed they wouldn’t be manhandled this year, however, despite their 1-2 record and Cloquet’s 3-0 record heading into the game.

Conner Hartmann, the wide receiver-turned-running back  punctuated a nice drive with a 37-yard touchdown scamper of his own to tie the game at 6-6. He found some daylight through the heart of the Cloquet defense and then made a man miss on the second level before he was off to the races. Hartmann’s two point rushing attempt was snuffed out by the Cloquet defense, leaving the score knotted.

The fast and furious first quarter continued, though, with Markus Pokornowski, who is the younger brother of last year’s quarterback and primary North Branch antagonist Tim Pokornowski, rushing for a 18 yard touchdown to put the Lumberjacks back on top. He took a handoff to the left and found no room before reversing field to the right and finding daylight as he put another score on the board for Cloquet. They converted for two points, getting back on track with their score and up 14-6.

Throughout the second quarter, North Branch was running the ball effectively on offense, but couldn’t punch in any scores. They were getting contributions from Hartmann, Eric Nadeau, Thomas Wurdemann, Drew VanEerden, Kobe Chouinard, Nick Hunziker and Derrick White.

Despite the lack of scoring, the North Branch defense stiffened up and played some of their best ball of the year. They limited the very dangerous rushing attack of Cloquet that was averaging over 300 yards per game heading into the contest, and kept them off the scoreboard.

In the third quarter, Nadeau finally got the Vikings back on the board, scoring on a 12-yard touchdown run bringing the Viking to within two points at 14-12. The two-point conversion was critical, but again, Cloquet kept the NB offense in front of them and stuffed it short of the goalline, leaving the score at 14-12 in favor of Cloquet.

After another strong stand from the North Branch defense, the Vikings pieced together a nice drive, moving down the field slowly and methodically before Hartmann finished the scoring drive off with a tough, gritty three-yard touchdown run that gave the Vikings their first lead of the game at 18-14 with just over nine minutes left in the contest. They missed another two point attempt and that left them in a tough spot up only four points.

It looked like Cloquet would take advantage of all of the missed conversion opportunities when they took six minutes and marched down the field, setting themselves up with a good chance to score. But, North Branch’s defense had one more stand in them. On fourth and goal from the five, Cloquet attempted a halfback pass that the NB defense snuffed out to turn the ball over. “We always tell the kids to win the moment, and we knew whoever won that moment would have a good shot at winning the game, so I was proud of our defense for coming up big in that spot.”

North Branch’s offense couldn’t get a critical first down on the next possession, forcing a punt to Cloquet with almost two minutes left in the game. But Drew Van Eerden picked off quarterback Riley Leslie to seal the huge victory. It was Van Eerden’s second game-winning interception this season.

The homecoming game will be the Vikings’ first true home contest of the year as they take on 3-1 Hibbing on Friday, September 28 at 7 p.m. on their new turf field. “I just told the guys to enjoy the week,” Voss said. “The big win, homecoming, the new field. It’s an exciting time. We’ve just emphasized the need to focus when we are on the football field in practice and games.”

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