A hometown newspaper with a local office, local owners & lots of local news

There's a lot to cheer about at Esko games

Football team seeks a perfect ending this year

As many of the football teams in the state played section quarterfinal games Tuesday, some members of the Esko football team wore pajama pants to go with their pads as they filed onto their home turf in practice garb.

Accompanied by hip-hop tracks piped through the public address system, the team ran through a practice that was vocal and high-tempo, with position groups hustling between drills every seven minutes like clockwork.

"That's a big part of our culture," said senior Bryce Hipp, an offensive left guard and defensive linebacker. "It's how we like to do it around here. If it wasn't fun for everybody, nobody would want to be here."

Following a third-straight undefeated regular season, the Esko football team enters its Section 7AAA semifinal Saturday among the most dominant teams in Minnesota. The team scored 459 points in running its record to 8-0, while surrendering a paltry 30 points - or roughly a field goal's worth of points per game.

But the previous two seasons fell short of the team's first state championship since 1975. For Coach Scott Arntson and his team, the true mission starts now.

"We kind of considered the regular season our preseason," Arntson said Wednesday. "We talked about that - the season actually starting on Saturday. For us and for our goals, that's the way we're looking at it. All the games up to here, we had things we wanted to work on and look at, but this is the first time we are game-planning to win. It's different. We're excited, because now it matters."

Esko opens its playoffs at 2 p.m. Saturday at home against Pierz, a four-time state champion with recent titles in 2019, '17 and '15.

Arntson scouted Pierz's 60-16 win over Proctor on Tuesday. Located roughly 40 miles northeast of St. Cloud and two hours southwest of Thomson Township, Pierz is in agricultural country.

Arntson described the opponent as big and physical, loaded with wrestler- and farmboy-types.

"They do a lot of things right," Arntson said. "You don't get to be state champions by accident, especially three times."

In Pierz, Arntson sees what he wants from his program.

"We still feel like we're chasing - we're trying to get there," the seventh-year head coach said. "Statewide, we're chasing and trying to get up with the big boys."

Esko's recent success - 30-2 since 2021 - has been accompanied by the usual ballyhoo. It has landed players college scholarships, notably safety Koi Perich's commitment to the University of Minnesota, and attention from all of the regional media outlets.

Close inspection reveals a team that's comfortable and enjoying the ride.

Starting junior nose tackle Brock Montminy, a 6-foot-2, 320-pounder with a broad smile, played the national anthem prior to the home game against Pequot Lakes on Sept. 22. He did so on his electric guitar. In the rain.

"Everyone liked it," said Montminy, who tore ligaments in his knee the next week against Two Harbors, knocking him out for the season.

Having come to grips with the disappointment, Montminy now attends every practice and game in support of the team.

"I'm not saying they need me," Montminy said, "but it was nice when they had me. I got double-teamed a lot."

Senior offensive center Talon Mattson has taken to playing defense to help make up for the loss of Montminy.

"Every year it's been senior-heavy and, again, we're senior-heavy," Hipp said. "This year, we're faster than we are bigger."

That team speed has been one of the key separators between Esko and its opponents.

"We have a rare thing," Arntson said. "We have some size and we're pretty physical, and we have some speed. Normally, it's one or the other. It's nice to have both when you're going into games and scheming where to get advantages and matchups."

The team's collective grit and ability begins in the weight room, Hipp said.

"If you don't get guys in the weight room and they don't jive together, you're not going anywhere," Hipp said. "But if you get guys in the weight room, you're going to bond in the weight room, and it leads to results on the field."

That much was evident during the bye week practices, which saw the team flowing between drills, with a noticeably loose attitude. Even then, the cadre of coaches was still stressing technique and the finer points of the game.

"I put a lot of pressure on the coaches to never waste a period," Arntson said. "There's a lot of teaching that goes on. It is sort of college-esque how we practice."

For the seniors who are trying to exorcise ghosts of two straight seasons of state disappointments, the time is now.

"Nobody wants to go down like we have the past two years," Hipp said. "We're staying focused and we're going to keep getting after it."