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Eskomos rally past Rebels and on to state

Esko softball players celebrate with eighth-grader Dea DeLeon (left, in helmet) after she scored the winning run on teammate Kristy DeMuth's hit in the Section 7AA Championship game against Moose Lake-Willow River at Braun Park. Photos by Dave Harwig/ 1 / 3
Esko seophomore Davriana Horvath drives a ball to the fence for a double during Thursday's Section 7AA championship game against Moose Lake-Willow River. 2 / 3
Moose Lake-Willow River's Lauren Pederson gets a hit in the Section 7AA championship game against Esko. 3 / 3

A loud coach known for hollering from time to time, Jeff “Huff” Emanuel often yells to his Esko girls softball team: "C'mon bottom girls," as a tactic to instill positive energy in his No. 7, 8 and 9 batters in the lineup.

Well, those bottom girls have helped bring the Eskomos back to the top.

Esko eighth-grader Kristy DeMuth singled in classmate Dea DeLeon with one out to cap a last-inning rally during a 7-6 victory over Moose Lake-Willow River in the Section 7AA finals last Thursday at a raucous Braun Park in Cloquet.

Now the Eskomos are off to their seventh state tournament in school history and first since 2007, while also winning a title in 1998.

Beginning play today (Thursday, June 9) at Caswell Park in North Mankato, Esko (16-5) faces LeSueur-Henderson (21-3) in a 9 a.m. quarterfinal with one game to follow and potentially another Friday. The Pine Journal will be there reporting on the games.

Last week, DeMuth was 2-for-3, while sophomore Davrianna Horvath added three hits, including a pair of doubles, and drove in two runs. Horvath singled to lead off the decisive last inning and sophomore Ashley Pollema batted in the tying run to set the heroics for DeMuth.

"It felt good to bring our seniors," DeMuth said. "I was just focused on hitting the ball and getting that winning run in."

That she did, lining Ally Bode's two-strike pitch down the left field line to plate DeLeon easily. Within seconds, DeLeon was dog-piled around home plate, while DeMuth joined in moments later.

"It was one of the best feelings in the world," added winning sophomore pitcher Emilee Wilson, who sprinted out of the dugout to celebrate with her teammates immediately. "I knew we could do it. I had all of the confidence in the world."

Esko, which edged the nearby Rebels 3-2 with DeLeon coming around to score the winning run during an earlier meeting in the winner's bracket of the tournament, looked to be set for North Mankato with an early 6-2 advantage against last week, but a five-run fifth inning moved ML-WR (20-6) in front.

It stayed that way until the seventh, when — like Emanuel has seen all season — his girls came through again.

"The bottom sisters started it and finished it off," he said. "It was cool."

For the Rebels, eighth-grader Jamie Benzie led with three hits, including a double, and two RBIs.

Coach Kelly Goeb remained upbeat afterward when talking about her group that never gave in, winning three elimination games to get to last Thursday and then almost stunning Esko.

"I'm very proud of them — they fought hard," Goeb said. "We came from behind a couple times to win the day before and almost did it again. These girls have a lot of heart and fought and worked hard all season long."

Emanuel, meanwhile, said his Eskomos can hit the ball one through nine in their lineup, but will get their biggest test of the season when they face LeSueur-Henderson's Carlie Brandt, a Division I pitcher bound for the University of Minnesota.

"You still have to play the game," Huff said. "I have confidence that we're going to put the ball in play. We have some power. With a shorter swing, who knows, let 'er fly.

"Like I told the girls, 'Every team that we'll face down there ties their spikes the same way we do and puts their jerseys on the same way we do,'" continued Emanuel. "You play the game and see what happens."

We'll see what happens for Esko senior Lexi Smalley, too, as the dual sport athlete also has the state track and field meet for Friday afternoon at Hamline University in St. Paul. The sprinter and reserve base runner actually qualified for both state events last Thursday: in track at Esko that morning, then for softball that afternoon at Braun Park.

Smalley traveled with the softball team Wednesday when they departed the high school a 9 a.m., after 8 a.m. track practice, as she will play softball today, then hopefully softball again Friday before heading north with her father, Kevin, who will likely have his foot on the accelerator.

"I'm going to be crazy busy and probably completely exhausted when I'm done, but it will be worth it," Smalley said. "A lot of kids rarely get to go to one state tournament, so it's really cool to be able to get to go to two [in the same day]."