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'Jacks hit a roadblock at home

The Cloquet boys basketball team played tough Tuesday, but ultimately fell to North Branch 73-69 in this season's home opener at Cloquet Middle School.

Head coach Steve Battaglia isn't worried.

"We are going to have some bumps and bruises along the way, but when the section playoffs start next March, this will be a team that [others] are not going to want to play," Battaglia said. "We have six seniors and not a lot of experience, but we have some players that will move into new roles. This is a good group of athletes; some will be learning new roles and learning as we go."

The Lumberjacks experienced some of those bumps and bruises against the Vikings Tuesday night. North Branch and Cloquet battled back and forth through most of the first half, trading leads and seeing the contest tied six times during the early going. Both teams struggled from the outside initially, with most of the points coming from drives to the basket or second-chance points off offensive rebounds.

The Vikings took advantage of their rebounding edge and Lumberjack turnovers to pull out to a 38-25 halftime lead. Shazae Henagin kept the Lumberjacks close in the first half, scoring 10 of Cloquet's first-half points. Max Sundquist nabbed 10 first-half rebounds to keep the 'Jacks closer than it might have been otherwise.

The Lumberjacks saw the Vikings extend the halftime lead to 17 early in the second half, but refused to roll over. Cloquet fired back as Henagin and Jack Battaglia stole the offensive show - Battaglia pouring in 16 second-half points while Henagin hit four 3-pointers. When Noah Hanson connected on a 3-pointer, the Lumberjacks came back to take a one-point lead, 47-46, with 7 minutes remaining in the second half.

With the score tied at 54-54 and 4:30 remaining, it was the last time the Lumberjacks were tied or led in the game. North Branch capitalized on numerous second, third and fourth chances offensively, along with untimely Cloquet turnovers as they held onto the lead over the final few minutes, ultimately winning by four.

"We struggled against Hibbing last week, but we were able to edge out the Bluejackets on the road," Battaglia said. "We were fortunate to win that with how poorly we rebounded, and tonight was the same thing. We have to get that figured out."

After starting with a 76-70 win over Hibbing and the loss to section opponent North Branch, the Cloquet schedule does not get easier.

"We have a tough schedule throughout the whole season," the head coach said. "We don't have any games you can circle and say, 'That's a win.' We schedule local opponents that have a great fan base that can fill the gyms."

Cloquet was set to play at Hermantown on Thursday and home against Esko Friday, followed by a game at Duluth Denfeld next Tuesday. The Lumberjacks will face four straight state-ranked teams in the early going.

Battaglia felt this team will be tested throughout the season, but they are a good bunch of athletes he expects will continue to improve. Following the Hunters game, Cloquet will face St. Francis (a state tournament participant from a year ago) and Hibbing again before the Wood City Holiday tournament Dec. 28-29 in Cloquet.

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