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Esko falls to Marshall, Aitkin in playoffs

Esko junior Ryan Nelson gets a hit during Tuesday’s 7AA playoff game against Duluth Marshall. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 3
Esko junior Brenden Durand beats out a hit at first base before Duluth Marshall’s first baseman can make the catch in Tuesday’s Section 7AA playoff game. The Hilltoppers upended the Eskomos 2-1. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 3
Esko junior Brody Kaldahl throws a pitch during Tuesday’s 7AA playoff game against Duluth Marshall. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal3 / 3

Baseball can be a cruel game, and the Esko Eskomos learned that fact the hard way on Tuesday evening.

The Eskomos, top seeds in the southern subsection, entered the semifinals of the Section 7AA tournament still in the winners' bracket — but left the day eliminated after losses to Duluth Marshall and Aitkin.

"Tough day," Esko coach Ben Haugen said. "We lost to two very, very good teams but to be honest, I really wasn't ready to give the last talk of the season after that second game."

The Eskomos faced Duluth Marshall in the winners' bracket final, but fell 2-1 at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior, in a game that featured plenty of Esko chances.

Against Marshall sophomore uber-pitcher Ben Pedersen, Esko got two singles in the first inning, a leadoff triple in the second, a leadoff double in the sixth and three singles in the seventh — and still wasn't able to score any of the runners.

The Hilltoppers threw two Eskomos out at the plate, and ended the game with the bases full of Eskomos and the team's best hitter, Tyler Peterson, at the plate.

"We had runners in scoring position in six of the seven innings," Haugen said. "It was a difficult loss. The old story about not being able to get a big hit, well, that applied to us."

Brody Kaldahl, who drove in Reid Davidson with an RBI single in the third inning for Esko's only run, retired the last 12 Hilltoppers he faced in a complete-game effort.

That dropped Esko to the losers' bracket against Aitkin (22-4) — and the wheels came off in a 9-1 loss that ended the team's season at 18-6.

"Really, we were never in the game against Aitkin," Haugen said. "But let's be honest, Marshall and Aitkin deserve to be (in the section final) and nobody is going to feel sorry for us."

Ryan Bourgeault went four innings and allowed six runs, five earned, while fanning six for Esko. Kaldahl had two hits and Brenden Durand drove in Esko's run.

The season ends two games short of St. Cloud and the state tournament, which might be the cruelest cut of all for the Eskomos.

"There are teachable moments all the time in baseball," Haugen said. "I just wish we could have had those moments at state instead, for the kids' sake."

Five seniors — Bryce Bottila, Ryan Bourgeault, Reid Davidson, Eric Newman and Ben Fischer — played their final games for the Eskomos.

"It's tough to find the right words and come up with something right after the game (to say to the seniors)," Haugen said. "Those are some good kids. Some were role players, some played with us on varsity as sophomores. All you can do is give them a hug, but you try to celebrate and focus on the good things."

One of those good things was to win 18 games, tying a high for Haugen's 11-year tenure as coach.

"It's right up there with the best seasons I've had, but in terms of enjoyment going to the ballpark, this was the best," he said. "In wins and losses it was right up there, but in terms of teamwork this team can't be beaten."

The bad taste left in the mouths of everyone in Esko colors may still have a motivational purpose.

"I told the players to rest up for a couple of days and then come back ready for summer ball, because that is when they improve to be better players for next spring's season," Haugen said. "We have a good core of juniors and I think we can be right back in the same spot next season."