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Esko coach reflects on sting of state loss

Two days after his previously unbeaten football team was eliminated by Annandale, 14-7, at a state quarterfinal game in Brainerd, Esko head coach Scott Arntson remained puzzled.

"It just seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong in that game," Arntson told the Pine Knot on Monday.

He'd watched a tape of the game twice, replaying how the team lost key players to injury, including its star Koi Perich, and let control of the game tilt in a second half that produced no first downs for Esko.

"It's been a while since I've been sitting there totally stymied," Arntson said, recalling how nothing worked for a team that averaged 50.5 points per game in going 10-1 and capturing its third straight Section 7AAA championship.

"It's obviously disappointing," Arntson said. "You don't have squads like we did this year every year. ... I thought we were as good as anybody in the state, and you at least want an opportunity to play a little bit longer."

The two teams went into the quarterfinal game with vaunted offenses. But in the end, it came down to defense.

Esko went up 7-0 early in the first quarter on a drive that included a 36-yard run by senior Joey Antonutti. Esko punctuated the possession on a 32-yard bobbling Sam Haugen catch from quarterback Jacion Owens. Both are juniors.

Things were rolling for Esko as they drove two more times into scoring position, only to lose the ball, first on a fumble at Annadale's 28-yard line and then an interception with the Cardinals taking over at their own 4 early in the second quarter.

"We came into halftime thinking, 'You know, we're controlling this game,'" Arntson said.

Standout senior Koi Perich was hurt in the first quarter, having run just four times for 9 yards. He tried to get back in on defense, but the injury to his hip wouldn't let him.

"He just wasn't ready to go," Arntson said. "It wasn't just Koi, either, we had a lot of different kids going down."

Startling senior left tackle Dylan Marciulionis left the game after the second kickoff and never returned. Senior center Talon Mattson toughed out the game, but wasn't 100 percent. Two-way senior starter Cruize Liimatainen and junior lineman Brock Montminy didn't play at all.

"We were just taping it together out there," Arntson said. "If we'd have gotten through to (the semifinals), we would have been limping into that game."

Against Annandale, the Esko defense was stout, giving up just 19 yards in the opening quarter.

But the Cardinals took advantage of the interception despite being deep in their own territory. They hit on a 66-yard pass to Esko's 20. Seven plays later, the Cards scored on an option pitch that the team would end up having success with as the Esko interior defense remained dominant.

Annandale had survived, avoiding the storm that Esko usually delivers in racking up points on opponents in bunches. Tied 7-7 at the half, both defenses bore down for a slugfest in the second.

The teams traded punts throughout the third quarter until the Annandale offensive line found a way to break through the Esko defense. The Cardinals hammered away with the run, peppered with passes, and scored on a 57-yard drive early in the fourth to take a 14-7 lead.

Esko had plenty of chances on offense, but couldn't sustain a drive after dominating time of possession in the first half.

Penalties against Esko helped Annandale play keep-away with five minutes left in the fourth, sealing the game with Cardinals' kneel-downs near the Esko goalline.

Ultimately, losing Perich was game-changing. Arntson said he had limited Perich's touches on offense throughout the regular season. The coaches were ready to fully unleash him during the state tournament.

"When we found out he wasn't coming back, that changed the game quite a bit," Arntson said. "He is such a game-changer; you miss one tackle on him and it's a touchdown.

"Our plan going into the state playoffs was to ride him more than we did during the season, getting him the ball in creative ways."

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Perich continues to be recruited by some of the country's biggest college football programs. Committed to play for the University of Minnesota, Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck tapped his recruiting budget to display a banner from an airplane over the field in Brainerd that read "Row the Boat," referencing one of the ebullient coach's mantras.

Instead of getting Perich unleashed, the team had to retrofit its gameplan on the fly, using football's "next man up" credo to propel the option rushing attack.

In reviewing the game, Arntson said the team missed some opportunities to get the ball outside, to what he called "the third phase" of the option.

"Annandale really attacked," Arntson said. "We tried to get outside and they had a lot of people going to the point of attack. That was a part of it, but some of it was on our end."

The final team stats had Esko with 128 yards on the ground to Annandale's 102. Esko had 48 yards in the air on just two completions. Annandale had seven completions for 123 yards.

Annandale also bested Esko in the 2019 state quarterfinal game, played on the same field at Brainerd High School.

Esko's remarkable season, with a third-straight trip to state, ended with a quiet bus ride home.

The team finished 10-1, and its seniors shared in more than 30 wins to go with three losses across the past three seasons.

Wide receiver Isaak Sertich will play for Minnesota State in Mankato next fall, and the fullback Antonutti and another senior skill player, Jace Stewart, will play for Valley City State in North Dakota.

Arntson credited Perich with bringing a new level of attention to the program.

"Any time he's on the field the spotlight is on him," Arntson said. "He's definitely put us on the map. Prior to Koi, I would say we were under-recruited. ... Because of the exposure he gets, residually we get some more exposure."

As far as keeping the program humming, Arntson said it'll be up to this year's sophomores.

"Our senior class next year is pretty small," the coach said. "We've got about 10-11 kids and I would say eight or nine of them are pretty special. We have some pieces, but our sophomores have to make sure they make a big leap into their junior year."