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Esko seeking state again

Elle Emanuel will be attending Minnesota State University in Mankato next fall, but the Esko senior is hoping to start her tour of the town a little earlier.

If she and her Eskomo teammates take their school to the state softball tournament for the first time since 2007, Caswell Park in North Mankato will be her home for the weekend.

Emanuel spearheads an effective Esko lineup, seeded No. 1 in this week's Section 7AA tournament, as they opened up play today, Thursday, against Proctor in Cohasset, after receiving an opening-round bye.

The Eskomos (12-5) earned the top slot behind ace pitcher Emilee Wilson, a study defense and, mainly, a barrage of batters consistently crushing the ball all spring. Wilson, a consistent right-handed hurler, is the club's leadoff swinger, while Emanuel, a speedy lefty who plays centerfield, hits second and is seemingly always on base. Mackenzie Holland, Davriana Horvath and Kristy DeMuth can also hit for power for first-year coach Huff Emanuel, Elle's father.

"They've just kept their noses to the grindstone," Huff said earlier this week. "We've kind of been under the radar and nobody has been talking about us."

Such shouldn't be the case, as the Eskomos are amongst the best picks to make it to North Mankato in the newly-revised section that has Hermantown, Cloquet and Pequot Lakes now all reassigned to 7AA. Newcomer Rush City (16-1), as well as Polar League foe Moose Lake-Willow River (16-4), Virginia (11-8) and International Falls (15-5) all pose viable threats, as the section semifinals and finals move to Cloquet Braun Park next Tuesday and Thursday.

Having eased by Rush City 8-1, ML-WR 10-4 and Virginia 9-5 all this spring, the Eskomos may just be the favorite on paper. That can change once a team takes to the diamond in the postseason, but with girls like Emanuel — a multi-year varsity stalwart with a sure glove, big bat and fast feet — easing those jitters becomes a little easier. After all, Emanuel is a pretty busy girl herself, always keeping her calm demeanor.

"She's our leader by example all the way through," Huff said. "With graduation, college, this and that, she always keep everything in hand."

If the section trophy is in their hands next week for the first time in nine seasons, you can bet Emanuel and her teammates will be elated.

"Our entire team wants this so bad," said Emanuel, whose older cousins and Uncle Brad were a part of the 2007 state-clinching club. "I remember all of the stories and I've seen all of the videos and pictures. I really hope that I can get that experience, too."

For Huff and his daughter, it would have a little extra meaning.

"I think we both have that goal. Being my first year and my last, that would be pretty neat," said Huff, who is also his daughter's soccer coach. "She mentioned to me 'Dad, we can do this.' It'd be pretty cool."

"It'd be awesome," Elle added. "As long as I can remember, my dad and I have been watching sports or playing in the backyard. I don't know anything different. And he deserves it after all the years of coaching me and putting in all that time and effort. I'd just love to be able to share that with him."

The Emanuels aren't the only parent-daughter combo in the field, as ML-WR coach Kelly Goeb and do-it-all daughter Ally Bode also give the Rebels a legitimate state chance since the team won a state title in the early 1980s during the Annie Adamczak days.

Bode, a right-handed heaver and lefty over-the-fence swinger, is the centerpiece for ML-WR, but teammates Suzy Grutkoski, Lauren Pederson and Marissa Mikrot all make their ways at the plate. Goeb noted five different Rebels have home runs this season.

"Anybody can step up and do a good job for us," said Goeb, whose No. 3-seeded team cruised by Crosby-Ironton 10-0 Tuesday and face International Falls today. "I think it's every team's dream to advance to the state tournament. There's always a chance. It's certainly a possibility, we just have to play our game."

That starts and ends usually with Bode, also a firm believer that she and her Rebel teammates could hoist the section trophy by the end of next week.

"It's one game at a time, but we're going to take it as far as we can," Bode said. "If we're on our game, I think we could do really well."

Like the Emanuels, Goeb said sharing a title with her daughter would be something memorable.

"It's certainly special to be able to coach her. There aren't many parents that can say they coached their kid through high school," Goeb said. "We won a state tournament in youth ball and that trophy sits front and center."

Centering 7A again is Cherry, as the six-time defending champions and top-seeded Tigers (15-4) have won 14 games in a row and are hard to pick against.

However, Cherry is joined by several other impressive contenders, including Nashwauk Keewatin (13-2) and South Ridge (13-4) — both which beat Cherry this season — and fellow No. 1 seed Carlton (14-6) which had a 4-2 lead in the last inning on the Tigers, until falling 5-4.

Perhaps that was a sign of Bulldogs coach Melissa Clark's youth, as the first-year coach and former Carlton alum starts five eighth-graders. Two of them are twin pitchers in Abby and Brynn Mickle, while seniors Hannah Benson at catcher and Macy Belich at shortstop are both team leaders.

"We talked about it today — really all it takes for us to go to state is winning four games," said Clark, whose team earned a first-round bye and faces Ely today at Braun Park, while next week's semifinals and finals are in Cohasset. "I think they have a shot if they're playing up to their potential. And we've driven it home — they have to come ready to play the game."

South Ridge meanwhile, played Tuesday, blanking Floodwood 17-0 and takes on Littlefork-Big Falls (14-3) — another section challenger — today at Braun. The Panthers are propelled by their five seniors, including ace pitcher Mallory Thibault, who recorded a 2-0 shutout win over Cherry on April 22.

South Ridge has never advanced to the state tournament.

"We've got five seniors who've worked their whole careers for this," coach Tim Anvid said. "A lot of these girls have sisters and cousins that have played before them. This would be for them, too. We want this and I think we're ready. We'll see what we've got."

Still, Anvid said a person can't bet against Cherry.

"You know they won't lay down," Anvid said. "I think there are four teams out there that can beat them, but you definitely have to call them the favorite."

Also in 7A is Barnum (8-9), 20-1 winners over visiting Cromwell-Wright Tuesday.

Having gone to 21 state tournaments in their school history, Hermantown is also the favorite in 7AAA, despite being moved up a classification. Hawks coach Tom Bang has 668 career wins and his top-seeded Hawks open up play Saturday at Braun Park. Semifinals and finals are next week in Grand Rapids.

Nearly six or seven teams are in the mix of the section, including Cloquet (14-6) — led by sole seniors Makayla Langenbrunner and Kassidy Steen, as well as  underclassmen Allie Wojtysiak and Kiana Bender.

The Lumberjacks, up in Class AAA for the first time in well-over a decade, aren't backing down despite losing four of their final five games of the season after a 13-2 start.

"It's going to be exciting on Saturday — we've got nothing to lose and will be ready to play," said a confident coach Ron Tondryk after Monday's practice. "We have a nice blend of kids. And it'll be nice to be up at our home park."

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