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Esko gets section title three-peat

Heads to State quarterfinal Saturday

In a rematch of last season's Section 7AAA title game, Esko downed Pequot Lakes 34-14 Thursday, Nov. 2, to gain the state tournament for the third season in a row at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Malosky Stadium.

"We knew that the game would be much closer than the game we played against them in the regular season," said Esko coach Scott Arntson, referring to Esko's 60-0 mauling of the Patriots in late September. That was Pequot Lakes only loss of the season ... until the section final Thursday.

This time the game was much tighter.

"The difference in the score in the first game was the fact that we scored some defensive touchdowns," Arnston said. "We knew this game would be different and they would come with a different game plan."

The bulk of the first half resembled a heavyweight boxing match with both teams trying to exert their will against the opposition. With a little over two minutes remaining in the first quarter, Esko gained the lead on a 5-yard touchdown run by Koi Perich, giving them a 6-0 lead after the missed extra point. The touchdown run was the culmination of a 58-yard touchdown drive by Esko.

"I thought Pequot came in with a good game plan," Arntson said. "They decided to sling the ball all over the place and they really took time off the clock to keep our offense off the field."

After a Pequot Lakes punt, Esko got a 72-yard touchdown run off the option from Perich - a University of Minnesota commit - making it 12-0.

"This was Koi's biggest rushing game of the season," Arntson said. "Our line is not the biggest, but they are strong and they are quick and they were able to grind the game out for us on both sides of the ball."

Before the half ended, quarterback Jacion Owens scampered to the outside for a score as Esko pushed the lead to 19-0. The touchdown was set up by a pass from Owens to Sam Haugen that covered 43 yards, putting Esko on the 1-yard line.

The Patriots responded late in the half after blocking an Esko punt, a moment that gave the Patriots a badly needed boost. Two plays later, Aaron Clark caught a touchdown pass from Clay Erickson which covered 25 yards. After the extra point kick, Esko led 19-7 entering halftime.

Esko struck again after the break. Isaak Sertich added on a 34-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, pushing the lead to 26-7 with a successful kick for the extra point. Again the Patriots responded, this time on a Erickson 5-yard touchdown run that cut the Esko lead to 26-14.

The lone score in the fourth quarter was a Perich 2-yard touchdown run, making the final score 34-14.

Perich led Esko with 153 rushing yards on 13 carries while Owens was 4-for-6 passing, good for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Jace Stewart had seven tackles and Perich added five for Esko on the defensive side of the ball.

"Braedyn Male also came up big, as did our entire defense," Arnston said. "He had a couple of sacks and they both came at key times in the game."

The victory means that Esko has now won three straight section tournaments and four of the past five section tournaments, giving them a chance to take on Annandale in the first round of the Class AAA state tournament. Annandale won Section 5 by a 14-8 score over Foley.

"It is like looking in a mirror when you see them play," Arnston said. "They run two different offenses, they are good on the line, they are athletic, their linebackers are good and they have a couple of bigger ends as well as some tough runners."

Both teams enter the game with records of 10-0.

"They don't give up many points," Arntson said. "They only give up about 8 points a game, so we'll have our work cut out for us."

The quarterfinal game vs Annandale starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at Brainerd High School.