Wyatt Stankiewicz drilled a 20-yard field goal with 5:25 left in the game and Esko played just enough defense to end the Aitkin Gobblers season 17-14 in the Section 7AAA championship game at Jim Malosky Stadium in Duluth Nov.4.
The Gobblers lost leading rusher Gus Sanford on the first play from scrimmage and despite efforts by Carson Kullhem and Jacob Williams, it just wasn’t enough as Aitkin lost to Esko in the section final for the second time in three years.The Eskomos beat Aitkin in 2019 by the score of 29-28.
Coach Alan Hills talked about the game, “I thought we played well, they were big and we knew that and they for sure did a good job handling our rushing attack. Gus Sanford thought he could go but after one play he was done. That hurt but we have two other great running backs and they picked up the slack. It was a good game and we wanted to get the win but Esko had other ideas. They made some big plays that kept us at arm’s length and we had a chance in the fourth quarter but couldn’t make it happen.”
The Gobblers took the opening kickoff and on first down, Gus Sanford who dinged his shoulder playing against Two Harbors, was hit and came off the field. He wouldn’t return, taking a bite out of the Gobbler offensive strategy.
They punted and after stopping the Eskomos had another chance on offense. They were forced to punt again and after taking over at their own 26, Esko struck quickly as Makoi Perich took the handoff and raced 74 yards for the game’s first score.
Wyatt Stankiewicz kicked the PAT and it was 7-0 late in period number one.
The Gobblers started the next possession at their 25 and on first down, Zack Ehnstrom tried his first pass of the evening and it was picked off by Perich at the 25-yard line. A 15-yard penalty put it back at the Gobbler 41 and seven plays later they were in the end zone again, this time on a 10-yard run by Nolan Witt.
Stankiewicz kicked the point again and it was 14-0 Eskomos just into the second quarter. Aitkin stalled on offense again and after a punt, Esko had the ball again. This time on second down, Landon Janzen pounced on a fumble and Aitkin was in business at the Eskomo 33. They went those 33 yards on eight plays to close the gap to 14-6 with Ehnstrom hitting Jaelend Williams for his fourth touchdown of the year.
Carson Kullhem ran the two point conversion and it was 14-8. It stayed that way until Kullhem picked off a pass at the Gobbler 24. Aitkin moved the ball but on a run for a first down, Ehnstrom fumbled and Esko took over. They ran six plays but the Gobbler defense stood up on fourth down and got the ball back on downs. Aitkin took a knee and the half ended with a 14-8 lead for Esko.
Esko started the second half with the ball and moved downfield but the Gobbler defense held again taking over on downs at their own 37-yard line. They went 63 yards in just six plays with Carson Kullhem lugging it the final 38 yards to tie the game with five minutes left in the third. The run for two failed and the game remained tied at 14-14.
After kicking off, the Eskomos fumbled on second down and Walker Jones jumped on it for Aitkin. They couldn’t move the ball and punted to the Esko 32. They ran three plays and the third quarter ended still even.
Esko ran a lot of clock into the fourth running 17 plays. They converted two long plays, one a third and 21-pass completion to Carter Zezulka and the second, a back-breaker, a 29-yard completion to Perich on fourth and 20 to the Gobbler 10.
Aitkin stiffened once again but Wyatt Stankiewicz booted a 20-yard field goal to put Esko up 17-14 with 5:25 to go in the game. The Gobblers went three and out and the Eskomos ran the rest of the clock out picking up three first downs along the way keeping the ball away from the Gobblers.
The Gobblers punted on fourth and 13 deep in their own territory hoping to hold on defense and get the ball back and Coach Hills defended that decision, “We thought punting at that point was our best chance. If we go for it on fourth down and don’t make it the game is over. We punted hoping to make a stop and we had three timeouts left so we thought that gave us our best chance to win.”
He also talked about this team’s legacy, “It hurts right now that the season is over but this group continues what they started two years ago. Prior to 2019, we hadn’t been to the Section final in 26 years. Now they can say they have been there three years in a row. It’s not the result we wanted this year but we won eight games and that’s a nice total and if we can keep things going these guys will always be able to say that they were here at the start of something pretty special.”
Stats for the game were pretty one-sided. Esko had 292 total yards to just 117 for the Gobblers. Aitkin rushed for an average of 238 yards per game during the season but mustered only 117 against Esko. Carson Kullhem had 54 of those on nine rushes while Jacob Williams added 25 yards on 11 rushes.
Zack Ehnstrom was 4-7 in the air for 38 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Jaelend Williams led Aitkin with three catches for 28 yards. On the defensive side, Walker Jones led Aitkin with seven tackles and five assists, Blaise Sanford had three solos and 13 assists and Jackson MacDonald had two solos and 13 assists.
First downs were 15-6 in favor of Esko. Meanwhile the Eskomos were led by Makoi Perich who rushed for 100 yards on just seven carries and Nolan Witt rushed 17 times for 81 yards.
The Gobblers finish 8-3 on the season while Esko moves on still unbeaten at 11-0.
Aitkin 0 8 6 0 14
Esko 7 7 0 3 17