The Cloquet baseball team doesn't have many superstitions, but if there's one that's obvious, it's Austin Gotchnik's hair.
The senior outfielder bleached his naturally red hair last fall when the Lumberjacks qualified for the state football tournament and has only cut it once since, leaving blonde remnants at the bottom of a hairstyle down to his shoulders..
"It's kind of my signature look," said Gotchnik. "I probably won't cut it until the end of baseball."
That could be a while, as Cloquet clobbered Pine City 7-0 and eased by Esko 8-4 in a pair of Section 7AA playoff games Tuesday in Proctor. Remaining in the winners bracket of the double-elimination tournament, the Lumberjacks (11-5) face dark horse Eveleth-Gilbert today, Thursday, in Hermantown at 4:30 p.m. Section semifinals and finals are next week.
"Today was probably the best baseball we played all year," Gotchnik said. "Things are looking good. We're pretty tough to beat right now."
Gotchnik beat the ball around Tuesday, finishing the afternoon 4-for-6 at the plate with a pair of hits against both the Dragons and the Eskomos, including several runs scored for arguably the fastest player on the team.
Teaming with Gotchnik was junior pitcher/catcher Brandon Conklin, who hit a home run, while Cloquet's depth-laden pitching staff won two more games without much laboring in front of a secure defense.
"It starts with pitching and defense," said Lumberjacks Coach Rick Norrgard of making a postseason run. "We believe we have enough pitching, but we have to take it one game at a time."
Their next game against the sixth-seed, upset-minded Golden Bears — a team that stunned No. 3 International Falls and got by No. 2 Greenway Tuesday — is one the top-ranked Lumberjacks cannot overlook if they want to make their first state baseball tournament appearance since 2010.
"[The No. 1 seed] doesn't mean anything — especially in this goofy year we've had," said Norrgard of a section tournament which has already seen co-No. 1 seed Hermantown bounced by bottom-ranked Duluth Marshall in their opener. "Truthfully, I think a few teams could win this. We're one of them, but we have to play."
And if they do, Gotchnik said his locks will stay long.
"We don't want to change anything now," Gotchnik said, superstitiously. "I'm keeping it."
Esko will try keep alive in the field when they face Greenway in an elimination game Thursday in Hibbing, as the fourth-seeded Eskomos (11-8) edged Mora 8-7 in their opener Tuesday in Proctor before falling victim to Cloquet, their fifth loss in six games.
"We're kind of reeling here," admitted Esko Coach Ben Haugen of a club that lost all four games last week before entering the playoffs. "We're a good hitting team, but we don't have that one dominant pitcher. We're going to have to make plays, throw strikes and hope they hit some balls right at us."
That's a good mindset for a team still playing, unlike third-seeded Moose Lake-Willow River (8-5), a program that had won five of its past six before being battered by No. 6 Two Harbors 10-1 Tuesday in Hermantown.
The Rebels had handily beaten the Agates 7-3 just 13 days earlier.
"We are right where we want to be," ML-WR Coach Matt Niedzielski said before Tuesday's season-ending defeat.
"But anything can really happen in the playoffs," added South Ridge Coach Tony DeLeon.
DeLeon and co-coach Tom Spaniol watched their No. 3 Panthers (7-8) pound sixth-seeded Carlton 9-1 in a Section 7A playoff opener Tuesday at Hermantown, prior to a 9-2 loss to No. 7 Silver Bay.
The Bulldogs (3-8), which advanced the section championship last spring — the furthest ever in school history — were young and inexperienced, finishing the season Tuesday, but with heads held high.
"We won our last two [regular season] games and were getting hot at the right time," said Carlton Coach Ryan Schmidt said Monday night before the playoffs.
Sometimes, other teams are just hotter. That was case for top-ranked Barnum's 9-0 shutout of Cook County Tuesday at Braun Park in Cloquet, just after slipping past ninth-seeded McGregor-Cromwell-Wright 4-3, which worked past No. 8 Wrenshall in a play-in game Saturday.
The Bombers (9-2) face another upset-crazed team in No. 7 Little Fork-Big Falls Thursday in Proctor. A win will move them to next week's winners bracket final. However, a loss puts the Barnum one loss from elimination, and perhaps a meeting with South Ridge, should the Panthers prevail against No. 4 Chisholm.
"It tests your team," said DeLeon of the daunting losers bracket, forcing schools to play up to several games in a day on some occasions. "It can be fun and exciting. I've coached teams back to the championship."