CLOQUET — A little over three years ago, then Cloquet-Esko-Carlton assistant John Sundquist’s sons — Max and Mason — went to a captains practice prior to the 2019 season.
“They came home one day and said, ‘You will not believe who showed up to captains’ practice,” Sundquist said. “Then we just heard stories about them dribbling through the team and making people look a little foolish. I said ‘Settle down, I’m sure they’re good,’ but they definitely proved to be what the boys had said — which was great.”
“They” are brothers Elijah and Jordan Aultman and the pair had just moved to Cloquet from the West African country of Sierra Leone.
This season Sundquist, now the Lumberjacks’ head coach, guided the team to a first appearance in the Class AA semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium with the Aultman brothers as major contributors.
CEC fell to eventual state champion DeLaSalle, but rallied to beat Richfield 3-0 in the third place game Nov. 2.
Elijah finished with 14 goals and seven assists and was named a first team All-State member and All-Tournament teams and now he’s added News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year to the list.
But this story doesn’t start at the fields at Cloquet’s Hilltop Park, it starts in an orphanage in Sierra Leone.
The boys were born to a large but devastatingly poor family living in a small village in Sierra Leone. When Elijah was 3 or 4, he and Jordan were sent to live in an orphanage because their family could no longer afford to care for them.
Elijah said he doesn’t really remember much about his life before the orphanage, but for nearly 10 years — including a nearly 5-year adoption process for parents John and Jackie Aultman — the boys lived at the orphanage. While living there, the boys played soccer — a lot.
Without proper soccer cleats and playing in the sweltering West African heat, the boys would often play barefoot.
“In Africa, we’d been playing soccer our whole life — me and my brother Jordan — even under the hot sun,” Elijah said. “Sometimes we try to use our bare foot to kick the ball and I think that’s helped us to know how to hold the ball or control the ball without even using cleats. I think that’s helped us to vision it and know how to vision that and know how to use the ball.”
The barefoot method seems to be bearing fruit. Not only is Elijah a first team All-State player, so is Jordan. Elijah’s elder brother scored 13 goals and had four assists for the Lumberjacks and was “a massive individual to try to match up against,” according to Hermantown coach Dave Thompson, and has a legitimate argument to be the player of the year in his own right.
In the COVID-shortened 2020 season the team started 12-0 and earned a 1-0 win over Duluth East — with the game-winner coming from then-freshman Elijah.
“When we beat Duluth East for the first time ever, Elijah got that goal with kind of a crazy header,” Sundquist said. “You could just tell, even with him getting subbed in as a freshman in big moments and playing big minutes, the moment was never too big for him — he was always ready.”
He even challenged then-senior Drake Schramm for the team lead in goals. Elijah finished with 20 that season, one behind Schramm — now a sophomore forward at Wisconsin-Superior.
Sundquist said Elijah is a “team-first kid” and he’s constantly worried about letting his teammates down. While the Lumberjacks appreciate the attitude, they know he’s a special player that has already been a part of the most successful season in program history.
“He’s a really good player,” senior defender Noah Knutson said. “He’s always in the right spot. He’s moving, always getting open for our team and when he gets a chance, he always finishes it — which is what we like.”
Elijah’s speed is what jumps off the page for other coaches, but he’s more than just another fast player.
“It’s his vision of the field and ability to find open spaces,” Grand Rapids coach Nick Koerbitz said. “Why that can be really frustrating from an opposing coach’s point of view is in an 80-minute soccer game, you can play your best game of the season for 79 minutes. In that one minute you’re not playing your best, he can find two or three ways to beat you … He has the ability to beat you in a second’s notice and by the time you realize what’s going on, it’s too late because of the speed.”
Thompson noted all the problems Koerbitz detailed, but added he has “great touch” and can get his teammates involved.
“As good as he is, he makes all the players around him better,” Thompson said.
While Jordan, Knutson and second team All-State goalkeeper Lucas Rauner will all graduate, the Lumberjacks have a relatively young team with one of the top players in the state returning. There is every reason to think the Lumberjacks will contend for a third straight section title, but at least one of Elijah’s goals remains the same — make his teammates better.
“It was a big challenge for me to be plopped here,” he said. “As a soccer player, you need to set a goal for yourself. I set up that goal to play at the bank and then just make my team better — even against the top players in the game.”
Sundquist joked that his goal in coaching Elijah — and Jordan, for that matter — is not to “screw this up.” Still, he knows the arrival of the Aultmans has changed the trajectory of the program and he wants to help Elijah continue to grow and develop as a soccer player and a person.
“I’m here to help him get as far as he can and what he wants to do, because, obviously, he can definitely play at the next level,” Sundquist said. “Whatever I can do to help him get there — if he wants to. Maybe he just wants to be a college student and take it easy, but whatever he wants to do, we’ll support him.”