You can excuse Ben Haugen for thinking anything is possible in the game of baseball.
Not only has the veteran coach seen his Esko baseball team earn the No. 1 seed to open this week's Section 7AA playoffs by batting around opposing pitchers and having some effective hurling and defense themselves, but he's also witnessed the wheels fall off.
Never was that more evident than on May 6 when Esko’s 9-3 lead against Hinckley-Finlayson with one final out to go turned into a torturous 10-9 defeat. That's no misprint; the Jaguars jumped on their sliver of hope to score seven runs in the seventh - all with two outs.
"It's one of those things of baseball," said Haugen. "It’s situations like that make it so exciting."
Haugen was hoping his Eskomos (13-7) would be on the positive end of things this time around when they opened postseason play Wednesday night as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press - a game postponed from Tuesday because of rain. A first-round bye has Esko sitting nicely as they seek their first state tournament in recent memory, but don't tell Haugen that. Despite defending champion Cloquet moving up a class, this section runs deep in tournament tradition.
Fellow No. 1-seeded Proctor (13-5) is always a contender, while co-second seeds Aitkin (17-2) and Duluth Marshall (13-5) make life difficult against anyone. No. 3 Mora (10-9) might make a run themselves, as the Mustangs are no stranger to winning this championship.
"We're the No. 1 seed, but it doesn't matter if you're 20-0 or 0-20 [in the playoffs]," Haugen said. "Everybody starts off fresh. We just have to make sure we play it one game at a time. That's cliche, but it's true."
Haugen noted his pitching staff doesn't have an ace who will blow the ball by anyone, but has plenty of depth, in fact, the most he's ever coached. Mix that with a strong helping of defense and arguably the section's most-feared hitter in senior left-handed slugging Nick Emanuel, and the Eskomos have no shortage of confidence entering June.
"It's playoff time, records don't matter. We just have to come out and play our game," said Emanuel, the team’s No. 1 catcher and a North Dakota State University commit who has seven home runs this spring (now 17 in his four-year varsity tenure). "One through nine, we're pretty deep top to bottom when we're all clicking."
"Nick is our X-factor," added Haugen. "If he can continue to do what he's doing and we can get some guys on base for him, I think it's going to be a lot of fun."
Fellow Polar League and 7AA competitor Moose Lake-Willow River (9-11) meanwhile, earned a No. 4 seed. A potential win Wednesday would run the Rebels into the Eskomos for a third time this season, contests that Esko won 17-7 and 4-0.
Still, ML-WR isn't counting themselves out of the double-elimination event. This past summer, the Moose Lake Outlaws - with several players on coach Matt Niedzielski's current varsity lineup - played their way all the way to the American Legion national tournament.
"You just get hungry, want to keep winning and that feeling just keeps getting better and better," said senior pitcher Rex Janke, who played for the Outlaws and has high hopes this week. "We know what it takes and just have to roll with it with our young guys. It's going to be a fun run."
In Section 7A, second-seeded South Ridge (15-5) is seeking its longest run yet, after two years of falling short in the section final. That heartbreak has propelled the Panthers this spring, but they're no shoo-in, with an abundance of ball clubs like co-top seeds Cherry (17-3), Ely (15-4), third-seeded Cook County (11-4) and reigning champion Deer River (12-8) all within the discussion.
South Ridge opened against No. 7 Wrenshall (0-10) Wednesday in Esko as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press. A victory would pit them against either Cook County or Carlton (5-14), a sixth seed looking for an upset.
"The whole team's goal is to do it this year," said Panther co-coach Tyler Olin, who heads a veteran-laden group, including five seniors, along with Tony DeLeon. "There's a lot of talented teams and a lot that could come out, but all we can control is us - and we're very confident in the group that we have."
Over in Section 5A, Barnum (10-10) boasts the No. 4 seed, and McGregor-Cromwell-Wright (4-15) is slated No. 6. After an opening-round win, the Bombers actually played Tuesday against top-ranked host Hinckley-Finlayson in a game they lost 4-1, despite facing Barnum senior pitcher Chris Carlson, who has tossed three no-hitters this spring.
Now in the loser's bracket, Bomber coach Mike Klyve said his team's journey back to the championship began Wednesday, hoping to play into today and even next week.
"That's the plan," a confident Klyve said.
Finally, in Section 7AAA, Cloquet - now up a class - fell in their opening round game at No. 3 Princeton Tuesday in an 9-2 defeat. With their season now on the line, the sixth-seeded Lumberjacks (6-11) next face the loser of a Hibbing-versus-Hermantown game at 7 p.m. today, June 2. If the Bluejackets are the opponent, the game will be played in Hibbing. If the Hawks win, the contest will be hosted at Ed Mettner Field.