Although Esko's Nick Emanuel and Proctor's Jake Malec will be baseball teammates at North Dakota State University next fall, the pair of prep senior stars had one final face-off as opponents on the diamond this week.
Malec and the Rails were the winners, as Proctor edged the Eskomos 10-7 in the Section 7AA winner's bracket final Tuesday evening at Hermantown's Fichtner Field, but not without a scare courtesy of Emanuel’s heavy bat.
Emanuel — a left-handed hitter entering the game hitting .459 with 36 RBIs and eight home runs, including 18 in his career — nearly hit a go-ahead grand slam in the top of the seventh inning with two outs. But, like in the dramatic ending of a sports movie, Rails center fielder Nathan Carlson leaped up and snared the ball before it could clear the right centerfield fence.
Esko coach Ben Haugen estimated the ball was a couple feet from giving Esko a one-run lead, but Carlson said afterward it was even closer than that.
"The wind kept it in a little bit, but it was going out," Carlson said to the Duluth News Tribune afterward. "It was right at the top of the fence. If it wouldn't have been in my glove, it would have bounced off the top of the fence and [gone] out.
"It was a classic moment, but then that was it," Haugen said.
Prior to Emanuel's near-heroics, Esko entered the bottom of the inning trailing 10-5 before loading the bases with no outs. Junior Reid Davidson then hit an RBI single and Malec followed by walking in a run to cut the margin to three. Rails coach Kyle Wojtysiak then took time to talk with Malec. His everyday catcher-turned-closing pitcher left a ball down the middle and Emanuel nearly got the best of him.
"I knew it was going to take some good pitches to get [Emanuel] out and I didn't necessarily throw my best pitch, but he necessarily didn't put his best swing on it — a good swing, but not his best," Malec told the News Tribune.
"That's the type of kid you don't want up at the wrong time," Wojtysiak added to the News Tribune of Emanuel. "I just made a visit right before that and told Jake, 'Don't make a mistake to him. We're going to take our chances with the next guy if we have to.' He left a pitch over the middle and that’s what that kid will do to you."
Luckily for the top-seeded Rails (17-5), who now face No. 2 Aitkin (22-3) — winners of four straight elimination games — in Thursday's final tonight at Wade Stadium, Carlson was there. Nonetheless, Haugen said his Eskomos (15-9), which defeated Proctor 7-1 earlier this spring, didn't play up to their potential.
Following their three-run loss, Esko's season closed in the loser's bracket final with a 6-1 setback to the Gobblers, another team the Eskomos beat during the regular season, 8-2.
"They both outplayed us today and they deserve to be there," said Haugen, noting his team's abundance of errors and unearned runs allowed throughout both contests, mainly Proctor. "We played pretty bad. It's a tough way to end the season, but it's like that — it can be kind of brutal.
"I thought we had a good chance this year and we just came up short," Haugen continued. "Nick was two feet away. We feel like we should be there, but we didn't play well enough today to do it."
Meanwhile in Section 7A, South Ridge played well enough to advance its way back to the final for a third season in a row, winning three elimination games throughout the loser's bracket, their latest coming Tuesday in Hibbing with a 6-1 victory over the section's defending champions, Deer River.
In addition to ousting the Warriors, South Ridge also edged Cherry 5-4 earlier in the day and Floodwood 13-3 last Friday.
The Panthers (20-6) now get to see Ely (19-4) in Thursday's final back at Hibbing. The Timberwolves shut-out South Ridge 1-0 earlier in the double-elimination bracket. However, according to Panthers co-coach Tyler Olin, with five of their six pitchers likely available for tonight, South Ridge may just have the depth to win the two games needed to advance to their school's first-ever state tournament.
"We've kind of got that sour taste in our mouths from last week, so we're very excited and happy to be back," said Olin on the bus ride home late Tuesday night. "We were hoping to be here, so we'll see what happens."
Barnum (13-11) nearly won its way back to the Section 5A final, stringing together elimination victories over Braham, Isle and Menahga, before a 4-0 blanking loss to Walker-Hackensack-Akeley Tuesday night in Brainerd finished their spring.
"This team battled every inch of the way and earned everything they got," said Bombers coach Mike Klyve on the way home Tuesday. "I don't think anyone expected them to get this far except us. They earned every inch and fought right to the end."