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Experienced Eskomos begin with balance

Esko’s Brody Kaldahl delivers a pitch during Saturday's 6-4 win over Superior. Jed Carlson/Forum News Service1 / 2
Esko’s Ryan Nelson tags out Superior’s Ben Rhodes as he tries to steal second base in the second inning of Saturday's 6-4 win over the Spartans. Jed Carlson/Forum News Service2 / 2

Being a 4.0 student, a potential valedictorian, and with his college plans intact, Reid Davidson is one smart cookie.

The Esko senior said he's off to the University of Minnesota-Duluth this fall, likely to major in engineering. He said he always liked the thought behind how to build things.

Similarly, the Esko baseball team is built around experience this spring, spearheaded by the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Davidson and four senior teammates, as well as a dozen juniors who follow.

In fact, only one sophomore is listed on their current 18-player roster.

"We've got a lot of experience back," said coach Ben Haugen in perhaps the understatement of the year.

According to Haugen, now in his 11th season in the Esko dugout, Davidson and fellow seniors Ryan Bourgeault, Eric Newman, Ben Fischer and Bryce Bottila are all back, along with juniors Ryan Nelson, Tyler Peterson and Brody Kaldahl. All seven are mainstays from a season ago.

Juniors Branden Matteen, Carter Northey, Riggs Olson, Brenden Durand, Eric Rish and sophomore Dane Stoyanoff will also create chaos throughout their lineup.

"Top to bottom, it's one of the nicest groups I've ever had," said Haugen. "I have 11 or 12 varsity guys that I can move around and not miss a beat."

That veteran-laden look has paid off early for Esko (5-2), which has already recorded wins over Virginia, Moose Lake-Willow River, Superior, Greenway and Cook County. In those victories, Haugen's crew has plated 55 runs — or an average of 11 per contest.

Even in a pair of losses to Duluth Marshall and Ashland, the Eskomos tallied 18 runs, averaging more than one per inning.

They scored 10 more in their shutout Tuesday of the visiting Vikings, despite playing on a cold, soggy evening that included a 15-minute rain delay. Davidson and Co. even had to cover the mound and home plate with tarps.

That was far from the scene last Saturday in Superior, however, when Esko again took part in Superior's annual Ron Orlandi Invitational. Compared to the past two years of near-freezing temperatures and relentless winds blowing off the shores of Lake Superior, last weekend felt tropical, with temperatures hovering near the 70s with plenty of sunshine.

"It was brutal the past couple of years. I don't know how much fun we really had because it was so cold," Haugen recalled. "But [this time] was fun."

"It was was beautiful to be out there," Davidson added.

On the Spartan's pristine NBC Sports Complex's artificial turf surface, Esko edged host Superior 6-4, behind a pitching victory from Davidson. Afterward, the Eskomos hit their way past Greenway 13-8 in a seven-inning slugfest.

The evening before, the fourth team in the field, Ashland, shocked Esko in an 11-10 win after evaporating a 10-4 Esko lead in the bottom of the last inning.

"The wheels kind of fell off there," admitted Haugen.

Nonetheless, Haugen added that it was a fun weekend to play a vast majority of his roster, including some of his varsity newcomers.

On top of that, Davidson, a three-year starter at pitcher and shortstop, said he prefers playing on the turf as opposed to traditional grass.

This obviously wasn't the first time playing on an artificial surface for Davidson, who is also a hockey player and football player, specifically a running back who's seen plenty of time at their own turf-equipped Esko Stadium.

"It's cool to be able to get a chance to play on it all," said Davidson.

If he and the Eskomos play well enough though, more turf will be in their near future, being that the Section 7AA playoffs are at West Duluth's Wade Stadium in its later rounds.

And despite an always-tough section, including the likes of Aitkin, Mora, Duluth Marshall and Proctor to name a few, Haugen says his boys should be in the mix.

"We have to stay mentally tough," said a confident Haugen. "But the most important thing is that the kids are all getting along. And the coaches are having fun, too.

"I've had parents already tell me that it's really noticeable that we all just enjoy being there," he continued. "And I think that's going to show up in the long run."

And still without a bonafide ace hurler, Esko will need to hit and play defense from the first pitch to last. But that doesn't scare Davidson.

"I believe we can do this and really make a dent," Davidson said. "We've got a lot of depth and a lot of juniors and seniors. I would for sure put us on that list of contenders."

And who knows, Davidson may even contend himself for an engineering job one day that oversees the creation of the very stadiums that he's played in. Of course, if he were building it, a turf surface would be mandatory.

"That'd definitely be interesting," he said of his potential future. "I've always enjoyed seeing how things were built."

For now though, he'll stick with what he's done for years: helping build Esko's chances on the diamond.