In the fall of 2015, four players signed up to play 9-man football at Cherry High School.
At the time, Jason Marsh was coaching the junior high program. He took the ninth graders who signed up so they had a chance to play.
In 2016 the program had 10 kids on junior varsity and 16 in junior high.
Slowly, the program was rebuilding.
“When the program was struggling, too often, young kids had to play,” said Marsh. “It’s hard if you are in ninth grade to line up against a senior in a varsity game. It’s hard physically and mentally. Kids have to play at their level.”
The administration supported Marsh’s stepped approach so kids were playing against others their age. With some success playing at their age level, more kids have joined the program. This year there are 29 varsity players and 20 junior high players.
“The total amount of kids in the program has grown each year,” said Marsh.
So far this season the Tigers are 3-0 and have outscored opponents 190-26. They are coming off an 8-2 season with both losses coming to eventual state champion Mountain Iron-Buhl, who beat the Tigers 56-24 in the section playoffs. They also lost to them in the regular season 34-24. The two will square off Oct. 12.
“We have to stop them defensively,” said Marsh. “They score a lot of points and it will likely be a shootout this year. But we can’t give up as many points as we have in the last couple years.”
While Cherry’s rise back to relevancy is an interesting one, so is Marsh’s. He and his family live near Esko, about 70 miles from Cherry in the northeastern part of the state. He makes a daily commute to teach science and coach football. They built a house on a lake south of Esko. His wife teaches science at nearby Cloquet and they have three children. Their son, Broderick, is a 9th grader in the Esko football program.
“We love the area and Esko is a great school district,” said Marsh. “All three of our kids are active in sports and Broderick loves being a part of the Esko football program. The coaching staff is outstanding.”
Marsh grew up in central Minnesota and attended high school at Sauk Rapids where he played football. He attended St. John’s University and played under legendary coach John Gagliardi. He played a year of semi-pro football for the St. Cloud Thunderbirds and got his first teaching and coaching job in Moose Lake where he served as a junior high coach under Dave Louzek.
He came to Cherry in 2013, took over coaching in 2015 and fielded their first varsity team in 2019.
He has been able to build a solid program through a simple philosophy that focuses on five words that hang in the locker room: hard work, commitment, respect, team, and school.
“Everything we do goes back to those core values,” he said. “If we as coaches can help kids become more committed, hardworking, respectful, team oriented young men who value education then we’ve done our job.”
Early on the staff had to prove themselves to the kids and build trust, but once a few signed up and had a good experience, others followed.
Marsh credits his assistants and the ability to have a consistent coaching staff without much turnover. Assistants are Clayton Koskela, Nick Stevenson and John Sikkila.
“They are extremely knowledgeable and dedicated,” said Marsh. “They take a lot of things off my plate and all of them have or have had players come through our program.”
While the program is on the up, there is still plenty of work to do. Every week presents a challenge. This year’s team, however, could be a special one, led by University of Minnesota basketball recruit Isaac Asuma. Asuma joins the ranks of other top players that include Noah Sundquist (QB/DB), Andrew Staples (E/DE), Noah Asuma (TB/DE), Ty Sikkila (G/LB), Mason Heitzman (WB/CB), Carson Brown (E/CB), and Zach Sikkila (C/DT).
Marsh said the players have taken on a leadership role that has really allowed them to take the next step toward success.
“There is an old adage that good teams are coach led and great teams are player led,” he said. “The past few years we have had really good player leadership. We have it again this year.”
Marsh said playing in the state basketball tournament last season also helped. Asuma, a 6’3” guard was ranked the No. 2 recruit in Minnesota in the Class of 2024.
“Isaac is a special athlete,” said Marsh. “If he hadn’t made his intentions known about basketball he would be getting a lot of looks for football. He would make an excellent receiver in college.”
Asuma plays pretty much everywhere on the field for Cherry – wherever they need him.
“In 9-man kids have to do everything so we line Ike up wide in our passing game, he runs the ball form the backfield, plays safety on defense and plays on special teams,” Marsh said. “He runs great routes, has a high sports IQ, and turns 50-50 balls into 90-10 ones for us.”
With Asuma leading the way, there’s a good chance the Tigers can make a deep run.
With the program back on track, now the goal is to get Cherry back on top.