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Prep soccer playoff preview: First round brings some fear

If form holds in the Section 7A high school boys soccer playoffs, Tuesday's matchup between top-seeded Duluth Marshall and No. 2 Cloquet-Esko-Carlton won't be the last time the teams meet.

But don't tell that to Marshall coach Mike Sengbush or CEC coach Archie Clark.

Neither team made it past its first game a year ago -- Marshall (11-4-1) lost for the second consecutive year to North Branch, this time in a penalty-kick shootout, while the Lumberjacks (11-3-2) fell to Hermantown.

"We're optimistic, but these games can go anywhere," said Sengbush, whose team hosts either North Branch or Hibbing in Saturday's quarterfinals. "Our game against Grand Rapids was an illustrator that you can't take anything for granted. We felt we controlled 70 percent of the game and ended up losing 4-0."

That marked the Hilltoppers' lone loss in a 13-game span until CEC dealt them a 3-2 defeat in the regular-season finale.

"We're aware that we can be beat," senior forward John Fox said. "But the thing that we have to be concerned about is our game. We can only beat ourselves at this point."

Or perhaps by an upset-minded opponent.

"I've seen it time after time after time," said Clark, whose team opens at home against either Duluth Denfeld or Eveleth-Gilbert. "There's been plenty of upsets in that first game before teams settle down and dig their cleats in. If teams aren't careful, they are susceptible in that first game. I told the kids, 'Don't think, just because you have the No. 2 seed, that you're going to waltz through that first game. You have to dig in and work hard.'"

That's what the Lumberjacks have done since a disappointing 4-1 loss to Hermantown on Sept. 8. CEC is 7-2-1 since, avenging one of those losses by beating Marshall and returning the favor to Hermantown 3-1.

"We saw how Hermantown played physically, and in our second matchup with Hermantown we just delivered that right back and showed them we could be physical, too," senior Hunter Leon said. "That's how we've been playing every game since."

Hermantown (10-6) received the No. 3 seed, while No. 4 Grand Rapids (9-5-2), No. 5 Chisago Lakes (6-9-1) and defending champion Proctor (6-7-3) all could spring an upset or two.

Still, it might come down to another rematch between the top seeds. If so, Clark says his team is prepared.

"I feel very confident," he said. "I am as excited as anybody to get these playoffs going. My boys are excited, too. We're playing the way we expected to play all year long. It's taken three-quarters of a year to play at the level that I expected us to."

Section 7AA

Duluth East relegated to No. 3 seed

Duluth East tied Blaine and lost to Andover -- teams seeded above it in the Section 7AA playoffs --but except for the first five minutes against Blaine, the Greyhounds didn't have Billy Renier in the lineup.

The senior forward sprained his left ankle early on in a 1-1 tie against Blaine and sat out several games, including the 3-2 loss at Andover. The seven-goal scorer could be the key to the Greyhounds' chances of earning a state tournament berth for the first time since 2008 and the third time in school history.

"With Billy in there, we're a different team," coach Nic Bacigalupo said of East's second-highest scorer behind Connor Danielson's 15 goals. "Maybe other teams don't know that, so hopefully we'll have that going for us."

Since Renier's return to game shape, the Greyhounds (11-3-2) are on an eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1). However, that didn't alter section coaches' votes since all but one of those victories came against Class A schools.

"We got what we deserved -- we lost to Andover and we tied Blaine," Bacigalupo said of the seeding process. "We played a number of single-A schools, and the double-A schools' attitude toward that is ... they're single-A schools. The only way to get seeded above them is to beat them."

To do so, East will have to win at opposing fields. After today's first-round game against Cambridge-Isanti on the artificial turf field behind old East High School, the Greyhounds likely would play at Andover on Saturday. Two of the team's three losses came away from home on grass fields.

"We struggled with road games because we don't play that well on grass," Renier said. "Our turf games are where we are at our best. We're a fast-paced team, and grass really slows us down."

Bacigalupo believes his team can handle the challenge.

"We're defending well and scoring goals, so I think things are coming together for us," he said. "I'm excited for the next couple of weeks to see if we can make a run."