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High School Football: 2 big conversions get Esko past Aitkin in section final

Aitkin vs Esko in the Section 7-3A Final

AitkinFB1.jpg
Aitkin’s Jaeland Williams (4) carries a pair of Esko defenders into the end zone in the second quarter of the Section 7-3A Championship Thursday evening, Nov. 4, 2021, at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

DULUTH — Top-seeded Esko needed to convert a 3rd and 21 and a 4th and 20 in its fourth-quarter drive to break a 14-14 tie against No. 2 seeded Aitkin Thursday, Nov. 4.

The Eskomos converted both times to set up the game-winning, 20-yard field goal by Wyatt Stankiewicz which gave them a 17-14 lead which stood to send Esko to state after winning the Section 7-3A Final at Malosky Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The 3rd and 21 happened on Esko’s 45 yard line after a false start and a negative run set them back. Eskomos' quarterback Ty Christensen found Carter Zezulka with a jump ball for a 30-yard completion to give Esko a new set of downs in Aitkin territory.

After a holding penalty and another negative run made it 4th and 20 from Aitkin’s 35, the Eskomos again converted with a seam pass to Makoi Perich who made a catch for 24 yards and a new set of downs for Esko.

“It was fantastic, I don't know what to tell you,” Esko head coach Scott Arntson said. “We’ve thrown up 50-50 balls for our athletes to make plays and that’s all those were.”

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The two conversions were back-breaking to a Gobbler defense which forced three turnovers in the section final.

“Those sting,” Aitkin head coach Alan Hills said. “We got the stop on that drive to give up just a field goal, but we are in a spot where you think we are going to be in good field position most likely and (Esko) makes a big play. Hats off to them.”

After the Eskomos nailed the 20-yard field goal, they stopped Aitkin on three straight plays with about three minutes to play. Esko milked the clock with three first downs to win the section championship and reach state.

Perich was explosive for Esko’s offense and led them in rushing with 100 yards on seven carries. His longest run was a 74-yard touchdown in the first quarter to make it 7-0 Eskomos. His lone catch came on 4th and 20 in the fourth quarter and went for 24 yards.

“He’s very explosive for us and the way we run things we have Nolan Witt hammering it in the middle and (Perich) can take it to the end zone anytime,” Arnston said.

Esko went up 14-0 in the second quarter when Witt ran in from 7 yards. Witt led the Eskomos in carries with 17 and compiled 81 yards rushing. The touchdown was helped by an Eskomo turnover where Perich picked off Aitkin quarterback Zach Ehnstrom.

“We knew we would have to get off to a fast start,” Arntson said. “I knew it was going to be a tight ballgame and points would be at a premium. It’s funny I figured coming into it that we would have to score 17 or more in order to win and it literally took 17. I wouldn’t mind a few more, but the kids did what they needed to do.”

Aitkin came right back to score before the half. Ehnstrom found Jaeland Williams on an 8-yard slant to make it 14-8 headed into halftime.

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“We are not a quick-strike team,” Hills said. “We run the ball, but we have confidence in this group of guys and these seniors upfront and we always feel like we can continue to move the ball. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Esko. They did a good job of shutting down the run. We were able to find just enough through the air and on the ground to scratch a few things out and make a game of it.”

The Gobblers took a blow on the first play of the game when their leading rusher Gus Sanford took a hit and was injured. He did not return.

“It was huge,” Hills said. “He’s got like over 800 yards for us on the season, so from a psychological standpoint it’s big. We knew his shoulder was not great. We didn’t know if he was going to be able to go or not. I give a lot of credit to Gus. He wanted to give it a shot and took one hit and knew it wasn’t going to be able to happen.”

Aitkin tied the game in the third quarter after turning Esko over on downs in the first second-half possession. The Gobblers went on a six-play, 64-yard drive capped off by a Carson Kullhem 38-yard touchdown run.

Kullhem finished with 54 yards rushing on nine carries. He also recorded an interception on defense.

Esko outgained Aitkin 312-128, but the turnovers kept the Gobblers afloat with a chance to steal the section title from the Eskomos.

Esko plays the winner of the Section 6-3A final between New London-Spicer and Pierz 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, at Brainerd High School.

“We just need to play a clean game,” Arntson said. “Every team is good there.”

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Aitkin 0 8 6 0 — 14
Esko 7 7 0 3 — 17

First quarter
Esko-Makoi Perich 74-yard run (Wyatt Stankiewicz kick) 2:27

Second quarter
Esko-Nolan Witt 7-yard run (Stankiewicz kick) 11:29
Ait-Jaeland Williams 8-yard pass from Zack Ehnstrom (Carson Kullhem run) 4:49

Third quarter
Ait-Carson Kullhem 38-yard run (run failed) 5:08

Fourth quarter
Esko-Stankiewicz 20-yard field goal 5:25

Team statistics
Rushes-yards: Ait 30-90, Esko 42-244
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Ait 4-8-1-38, Esko 5-10-78
Total offense: Ait 38-128, Esko 52-312

Individual leaders
Rushing: Ait-Carson Kullhem 9-54, Jacob Williams 11-27, Jackson MacDonald 1-6, Zach Ehnstrom 6-0; Esko-Makoi Perich 7-100, Nolan Witt 17-81, Joey Antonutti 7-41, Ty Christensen 8-12, Mason Perich 1-9, Javontae Gregory 1-3
Passing: Ait-Zach Ehnstrom 4-8-38; Esko-Ty Christensen 3-6-52, Joey Antonutti 2-3-26
Receiving: Ait-Jaeland Williams 3-28, Jackson MacDonald 1-10; Esko-Carter Zezulka 2-28, Mason Perich 2-26, Makoi Perich 1-24

Esko 17, Aitkin 14

Key: Esko converts two big plays to secure a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter.

Overall: Ait 7-3, Esko 10-0.

Next: Esko vs. New London-Spicer/Pierz in the Class 3A state tournament at Brainerd High School 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13.

CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or conrad.engstrom@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.

Related Topics: FOOTBALLLOCAL SPORTSAITKIN GOBBLERSESKO
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