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Esko cruises to section final

From the opening kickoff Saturday, Oct. 28, the Esko football team sought to dominate. Senior Ethan Kilichowski blew up a blocker on Esko's opening kick, then proceeded to make the tackle, triggering an avalanche of physical play that buried Pierz in a 56-8 romp on Esko's turf.

The coldest day of the season so far had some watching the game from vehicles along Canosia Road. But many of the Esko players eschewed long sleeves for the Section 7AAA matchup, shrugging off the chill and dispensing punishment on a crystal blue day.

The defense barely allowed Pierz any progress. Led by senior safety Koi Perich, who contributed a pair of tackles for losses, the defense swarmed with gang tackles and made big sticks throughout the contest.

"Physicality is something we're preached, and something we bring every game," said senior center and defensive lineman Talon Mattson. "We know it's something a lot of teams struggle with, and we wanted to come out with the mindset that we're going to dominate early."

The goal, Mattson added, was to thwart the motivation of the well-respected Pioneers (6-4), recent state champions in 2015, '17 and '19.

Mission accomplished.

Esko led 14-0 midway through the first quarter and 28-0 at halftime, with quarterback Jacion Owens passing for three scores (all to fellow junior Sam Haugen), and scrambling for another.

Perich and fellow senior Joey Antonutti followed with rushing scores in the third quarter, followed by another Owens scramble for a TD, and a kickoff return for a score by sophomore Graham Hartlieb late in the game.

Sophomore Jacob Iallonardo was perfect on extra points, punctuating all eight TDs.

But the game featured a flip side for Esko, too - a messier one.

Esko, playing four wide receivers with Owens in shotgun formation throughout the first half, saw a pair of bad snaps recovered by the quarterback. A sure-touchdown pass was dropped and two interceptions came in the end zone. Two long punt returns by Perich were called back because of blocking-in-the-back penalties, including a would-be 75-yard touchdown. The team also received 15-yard penalties for some after-the-whistle outbursts and Perich was also flagged for a personal foul helmet-to-helmet hit.

"There were mistakes that can't happen," Mattson said. "They're the things that can bring a team down when it counts."

Esko (9-0) rode its third-straight unbeaten regular season into these playoffs. It was poised for a rematch Thursday with Pequot Lakes in the Section 7AAA championship game at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Malosky Stadium.

Esko defeated the Patriots, 60-0, at home on Sept. 22, handing 8-1 Pequot Lakes its only loss to date. The Patriots ended Two Harbors' season on Saturday, winning 21-15 in the section's other semifinal.

"We had one goal in mind," Mattson said to start the playoffs, "and that's bring the best energy we could, and I think we did that."

Thursday's results came after the Pine Knot's weekly deadline and will be reported in the Nov. 10 edition.

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