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Updated: 'Jacks are still the one

For the fourth year in a row, the Cloquet girls soccer team is headed to State.

In a frigid 7AA championship game Tuesday night, the Lumberjacks defeated the No. 1 seeded and host Grand Rapids, 4-2. It was sweet revenge for the 'Jacks, following the 3-2 loss to the Thunderhawks in September that consigned Cloquet to the No. 2 slot.

"If we win that game, I don't know that we win this one," said head coach Dustin Randall afterward. "I think we needed that sort of motivation and mental push to prepare for a team that beat us. We had to play our best game. In the end, I think you have to learn from those losses, and that was an important one."

The win didn't come easy. In fact, Grand Rapids got the first goal, courtesy of Rapids star senior forward Abbey Birkey. But Cloquet responded with two goals - the first by senior Alexa Snesrud, the second by fellow senior Macava Smith on a free kick - before the half ended.

That gave the Lumberjacks some much-needed confidence heading into the second half.

"I think some younger players were a little rattled by the first goal there, but as a group they have some good leadership, so they got it together," Randall said. "We went into half knowing, 'Hey, we can score on this team.'"

In the second half, Cloquet freshman Makayla Stirewalt scored, but the Thunderhawks scored "instantly" to make it 3-2, Randall said. Then Cloquet freshman Lauren Hughes made the final goal for Cloquet to put the game away.

Before they could win, however, Cloquet first had to figure out how to neutralize Abbey Birkey, Randall said, calling her Grand Rapids' "one incredible player." Randall moved Snesrud to defense and relied on other players - including Hughes, Smith, BrookeLynn Sell and Addison Sandman - to keep up the pressure offensively.

"She (Birkey) is quick, and she was getting by us and putting balls in the box, and they scored twice doing that," Randall said. "We matched their best player with our best player and ended it."

Snesrud has been an important member of the varsity for the past four years, and has scored over 60 points since she first played varsity in eighth grade, he said, noting that Tuesday's very balanced attack was a little unusual.

"We have a few different weapons, but Avery [Carlson] and Alexa scored a lot of our goals at the beginning of the year," he said.

Cloquet's senior goaltender, Katelyn Olson, also played well, earning two saves on a night that saw multiple crosses by a tough Thunderhawks team.

"She's a pretty solid presence back there, so it'll be a tough loss losing her as well," Randall said of Olson, in her second year of starting for the Lumberjacks after Gracie Meagher graduated and went on to play for the College of St. Scholastica.

As noted above, this will be their fourth trip to State in as many years. Before this run, Randall previously had teams go to State in 2009 and 2012. The longtime girls coach credits coaching stability - including Bobbie Turner as assistant coach - and having a crew of solid all-around athletes who are strong competitors.

"There's a lot of synergy with some of our other athletics," he said. "The girls are in track and basketball, they work really hard all year. So it's not just what I'm doing here, for sure. They're pretty well-rounded."

The team and coaches likely won't learn its opponent or when it will play in the Class AA State quarterfinal until Saturday. Randall said they could end up ranked, since they were ranked 10th in Class AA this week and as high as sixth earlier in the season.

The Lumberjacks boys team are also headed to State: the boys for the second year in a row. Randall said it's exciting.

"I'm proud of those guys," he said of the boys team, remembering all the fun both teams had attending the 2021 state banquet. "I love soccer, I love working at the school and seeing the success of the soccer programs here."

The Cloquet girls team is up to 15 wins, three losses and one tie (to Esko, in their final regular season game) for the year.

How many more wins would it take to earn the title of state champion?

"Three," Randall said, with a chuckle. That's all he said.

Maybe this is the year?

UPDATE: Both the Lumberjacks girls and boys teams will play state quarterfinal games Thursday, Oct. 27 at Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minnesota. The girls will play Mankato East at 5:30 p.m. The No. 3 ranked CEC boys will play St. Cloud Tech at 7:30 p.m., after the girls game.

If they win, the semifinal and championship games are at US Bank stadium. The girls game would be 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2; the boys would play 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1. Championship games are set for Friday, Nov. 4: girls at 12:30 p.m. and boys at 7:15 p.m.

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