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Cloquet wins 'Paddle' game with Esko

The Cloquet and Esko girls basketball teams battled for the first time Tuesday with more than just bragging rights on the line. The Lumberjacks prevailed to win the first "Battle for the Paddle."

Esko head coach Sue Northey came up with the idea.

"We were looking to come up with a trophy game, as we have met each other 30 times dating back to 1987," Northey said, pointing out that since Carlton and Wrenshall have merged sports programs, that left no local girls teams playing for jugs or other traveling trophies right now. "We don't believe there are any local rivalries like this left anymore, so we decided to start our own."

A short introduction to this new rivalry came prior to Tuesday night's game, with both teams wearing "Battle for the Paddle" T-shirts.

Cloquet assistant coach Dan Danielson penned the presentation noting that the paddle was selected based upon the cultural heritage of both the Ojibwe and the European settlers back in the 19th century. The exchange resulted in a unique blend of indigenous and settler craftsmanship. Generations of people utilized this tool as they navigated the same lakes and rivers in northeastern Minnesota. The canoe paddle became a tangible representation of the intersection of these two worlds.

"Today, in our Esko and Cloquet communities, the paddle serves as a cultural bridge, reminding both communities of their shared heritage. It embodies resilience, adaptation, and a mutual respect for our neighbors," Danielson wrote. "Through the symbolism of the paddle, our two communities celebrate our intertwined histories and celebrate the ongoing rivalry between our proud and historic basketball programs."

The hardware will be on the line each time the two teams meet, meaning Esko will have another crack at it when the teams play again on Jan. 4 in Cloquet.

With the paddle on the line, the Lumberjacks started fast in the first half, building up a five-point 31-26 lead at the break. Cloquet shot the ball extremely well in the first half, hitting 6-of-8 three-point attempts with three players balancing out the scoring, including Ava Carlon with 12 points in the first half, Kiley Issendorf with nine and Lauren Hughes with seven.

Esko struggled from the outside with the exception of Hannah Swanson, who led all scorers at halftime with 21 points. Swanson hit three long-range bombs, but most of her points came from drives to the basket. The Esko senior used her athletic ability to make some remarkable shots, often coming off balance, which sent her to the free throw line six times in the half.

Although it was the first game for both teams - which typically features a lot of turnovers and mistakes - the contest had only 14 turnovers on the night, a lot of scrappy play and hustle from both teams.

Esko saw its poor outside shooting continue in the second half, but took its only lead midway through the second half when Kyra Johnson scored down in the low post, making the score 38-36.

Cloquet responded with balanced scoring and good free throw shooting down the stretch. Leilani Fonoti led the Lumberjacks with 7 points in the second half.

Defensively, Esko shut down Carlson in the second half, but with good ball movement and continued success the Lumberjacks went on to the 11-point victory. Seniors Carlson and Issendorf led Cloquet with 12 points each while Fonoti ended with 10 in the win and Hughes scored nine total. Other scorers included Carly Johnson with six, plus Quinn Danielson, Paige Goranson and Nattie Butler with 2 points each.

Like Esko, the Lumberjacks shut down Esko's leader in the second half, allowing Swanson only 6 points in the half - four which came from the free throw line. Swanson ended with 27 points to lead all scorers and was the only Esko player in double digits. Also scoring for Esko were Kyra Johnson (8), Erin Pettyjohn (3), Kaitlyn McConnell (3), Kallie Sinnot (2), and Cairin Berger (1).

Esko also struggled from the free throw line, going 9-for-23 from the charity stripe. Unofficially, Esko's poor shooting from beyond the 3 point line impacted their chances to make a run down the stretch as they were 4-of -27 from beyond the arc.

"We played very well. It was a hard-fought win, and I am excited to have this in our possession," said Cloquet head coach Heather Young of the canoe paddle. "I was proud of how well our defense played and it was a great way to start the season."

The win moves Cloquet to 1-0 on the season. The Lumberjacks were set to play at Hermantown Thursday after the Pine Knot went to press and at Duluth East on Tuesday. Cloquet will open its home schedule on Saturday, Dec. 9 against Grand Rapids.

Esko will have its next five games on the road with matchups at Rock Ridge, Annandale, Pierz, Crosby-Ironton and finally Barnum, on Dec. 15, before returning home Dec. 18 to host Mountain Iron-Buhl.