A year ago the Esko softball team was peaking at the end of the regular season and getting ready to enter the playoffs as the prohibitive favorite, along with Moose Lake-Willow River, for the Section 7AA tournament. This year the Eskomos have left little doubt they are again among the favorites in the section by going 15-1 through their first 16 games, including a nifty 6-4 win over the Rebels May 2.
"Since day one our team focus was on the 'Big Three' — if we field better, if we have more quality at-bats and if we pitch better we would be a better team," explained coach Huff Emanuel. "It is the little things like no errors that help your pitchers, the pitch count and no walks keep your defense in the game and as a batter not extending your strike zone so you make the other pitcher work harder and hopefully tire them out. This team was ready for more of a challenge."
The Eskomos have expanded their repertoire this season by adding more sophisticated plays on the offense such as hit-and-runs, squeeze plays as well as challenging the team on the defensive side of the ball.
"From the first practice, Emilee Wilson became our leader," said Emanuel of his star junior pitcher. "By leading the team in stretches, living by example and being one of the hardest-working players on the team, but what is even more impressive is our senior core of players giving her those reins. They knew that it was their final go of it."
On the field Wilson leads a team of eight returning players as well as a deep roster that has power, speed and moxie to go along with that state tournament experience of last season.
"On the field Wilson is an absolute pitbull and Clydesdale," Emanuel said. "Off the field she is one of the most genuine young ladies I've ever coached. She came into her own last season, but was not satisfied with the result and she wanted to be better so she worked hard this offseason. She should be an inspiration to any young pitcher. She sets the standard for herself and once that's accomplished she will set another even higher. Class act are the words to describe her."
While Wilson is the No. 1 pitcher on the squad, they also have gotten some strong help from Natalie Putzke who picks up the slack and gives Emilee much needed time off to stay fresh. Putzke is 3-1 on the season with her only loss to top-rated Hermantown in Class AAA.
"Our lineup starts with speed, power and tenacity," Emanuel said. "MacKenzie Holland has been a spark for our team and she instills all three of those qualities."
Holland is hitting .538 with 28 hits, 22 runs scored and has yet to be caught stealing on the base paths. Wilson also has been more than good with a .583 average, two homers and 15 runs batted in as well.
"We are also getting a good season from Davriana Horvath in the clean-up spot. She is hitting .425 and has a team-leading three homers with 19 runs batted in," Emanuel said. "Ashley Pollema is creeping back up the leaderboard on this team as she started off a bit slow but made some adjustments and has raised her average to .479."
The team is chock-full of outstanding players and Emanuel struggles to mention just one or two because the entire team has been incredible. How incredible? How about a team batting average of .401, 13 home runs, 132 RBIs, 256 runs scored and 69 stolen bases — in 16 games.
"Horvath is special as a catcher," commented Emanuel. "She is very competitive and the scary thing is she is still learning the nuances of the catching position."
What appears to be a gifted and athletic group also is a tight-knit squad, and that might be the most important gift this team can give to each other.
"This team is like a bunch of sisters," Emanuel suggested. "They love each other (most of the time) and I would be a liar if I said it has been all smooth sailing to a 15-1 record, but the most important thing is that they are still a band of sisters and at the end of the day they all join as one and find a way to stay together."