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Football: Esko tops Two Harbors in defensive battle

Ricky Brenna (42) of Two Harbors strongarms Brody Kaldahl (53)of Esko while rushing the ball during Friday's game in Two Harbors. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Spencer Ross (34) of Two Harbors rushes the ball past Branden Matteen (17) of Esko during Friday's game in Two Harbors. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Ryan Darsow (7) and David Anderson (11) of Two Harbors tackle Ryan Nelson (6) of Esko during Friday's game in Two Harbors. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Despite throwing a pair of interceptions while directing a sputtering offense, Brendan Durand's Esko teammates never lost faith in their quarterback Friday night.

"Guys kept coming up to me and saying they had confidence," Durand said. "We knew that eventually our offense was going to work if we stuck to our game plan, and it did."

Not everyone in attendance at this Northeast District football game shared that unbridled optimism. But the Eskomos, indeed, stayed the course, and finally — mercifully — scared up some action when Durand threw a strike to Branden Matteen, who slipped a defender and raced 22 yards to the end zone late in the fourth quarter.

And thus concludes the scoring summary.

Esko (1-1) survived a field-position, punt-happy affair to defeat the Agates 7-0 at Halsted Field.

Two Harbors (2-1) came in having scored 76 points combined in blowouts of Crosby-Ironton and Duluth Denfeld. Before the season started, Agates coach Tom Nelson said this would be a rebuilding year for his squad, which graduated 17 seniors from 2016. That appeared to be a coy misrepresentation through the first two weeks. But Friday, Two Harbors showed it has plenty of work to do — at least offensively.

Senior running back Spencer Ross rushed for 96 yards, but, aside from a few big gains, that tally came on a steady diet of 3- and 4-yard pickups. As Nelson said, "We just couldn't move the ball tonight."

"Offensively, I thought we were very soft, very soft," the coach added. "I thought our defense did a heck of a job, but offensively we were bad. And that falls on me."

Ross was coming off a 206-yard, five-TD effort against Denfeld.

This was the rare high school football game in which the end zone grass nearly made it through undisturbed. There were more flags than a Fourth of July parade, more turnovers (eight) than points. Still, the Eskomos, coming off a 55-20 loss to Cloquet, won't be giving the win back for lack of aesthetics.

Losing three fumbles — including on their first play of the second half, and then again after getting the ball back — and tossing two interceptions isn't an ideal scenario. But the miscues are more palatable in victory.

"Sometimes I think we focus too much on the scoreboard," second-year Esko coach Scott Arntson said. "We're just trying to get better, from last year to this year. We're just trying to get the rudder going in the right direction."

That started when the 6-foot-3 Durand made a quick and fruitful read of the Two Harbors defense with about 4 minutes and 40 seconds to play in the fourth. He alertly spotted fellow senior Matteen, who went down with a calf cramp earlier in the game. Matteen did the rest himself.

"Perfect pass," he said. "Got in the end zone."

Both players were pressed on who did the bulk of the work on the decisive play. Both were diplomatic.

"The quarterback does all the work," said Matteen, who finished with five receptions for 70 yards. "In order for me to score, he has to throw a good pass."

Said Durand: "He has to make the catch, and he made a guy miss, so I'll give him some credit on that, too."

Friday night, nobody really cared who took the credit — only that there was a touchdown to credit.

Esko 0-0-0-7—7

Two Harbors 0-0-0-0—0

E — Branden Matteen 22 pass from Brendan Durand (Cameron Osterling kick)