Last Tuesday only two teams from the Pine Journal coverage area remained in the boys baseball sectional playoffs. By the end of the night both those teams, South Ridge in Class A and Esko in Class AA, were eliminated and any chance of a team from the Carlton County/southern St. Louis County area representing Section 7 in the Minnesota State High School Baseball Tournament had ended.
Esko entered Tuesday's Section 7AA play without a loss in the double-elimination tournament, blanking Crosby-Ironton 11-0 and defeating Eveleth-Gilbert 16-2 in five innings. They resumed tournament play with a 2-1 loss against eventual section champion Duluth Marshall and then were eliminated 9-1 by the Aitkin Gobblers.
"The Marshall game was a heartbreaker," said Esko coach Ben Haugen. "I thought we outplayed them, honestly. We just couldn't get the big hit. We outhit them, we had fewer errors and I thought our guy on the mound, Brody Kaldahl, pitched fantastic. That's baseball."
While Esko had Kaldahl throwing well, the pitcher for Marshall, Ben Pederson, was equally impressive.
"Pederson is a lights-out pitcher and we knew he was going to be tough," explained Haugen. "You'd think in a game that you would get a few breaks. They got one. We got none. That was the difference. It was an exciting high school playoff baseball game. Nail-biting and entertaining."
Esko's only run came in a wild third inning when Reid Davidson's hit brought in Kaldahl for their lone run of the inning that also saw two Eskomos thrown out at home plate.
"It became clear to me that runs were going to be hard to come by and both plays were contact plays," recalled Haugen. "On the first one our guy still froze and waited for me to say 'Go.' I believe he would have scored if he had gone right away as the ball was hit in the hole at short. The second ball was hit right back to the pitcher and there is nothing you can do. We felt like we needed to make something happen, but they made both plays."
The Eskomos also had chances in the first inning when they had back-to-back hits, a leadoff triple in the second and another leadoff double in the sixth inning as well as three singles in the seventh inning.
Following their tough loss to Marshall, the Eskomos met Aitkin and dropped a 9-1 decision which eliminated them from sectional play.
"It was extremely tough after the Marshall game. We were in the same situation last year. I tried to fire every bullet I know," said Haugen. "Aitkin is really, really good and a veteran team. They smelled blood and went for the kill and knew how to get the job done."
Esko completed the season with an 18-6 record and, according to Haugen, lose five seniors: Bryce Bottila, Ryan Bourgeault, Reid Davidson, Ben Fischer and Eric Newman.
Entering double-elimination play last Tuesday, the South Ridge Panthers were undefeated and looked every bit the team that could win Section 7A. In the end the Panthers ended up just short of their state aspirations, but they played well enough that they could have been hoisting the trophy with a few bounces their way.
The Panthers opened the tournament May 30 with a 14-3 rout over Silver Bay. On Thursday, June 1, the Panthers defeated the Ely Timberwolves 5-0. The win over Ely put the Panthers into Tuesday's double-elimination round undefeated, but eventually it was the Timberwolves who came back and took the section title through a series of nail-biting games.
South Ridge started the day off last Monday with an 8-6 loss to Deer River, the defending section champions.
"The outcome was not what we expected going into the game," explained Panthers coach Tyler Olin. "It was certainly a roller-coaster ride."
The goal going into Tuesday's opener was for South Ridge to be undefeated and they had accomplished that goal with the two wins the week prior.
"We were right where we wanted to be," Olin said. "We wanted to be playing Deer River with both of us undefeated, and then the game started out in their favor. We seemed to come out a little flat and it took a few innings for us to get our confidence going."
The roller-coaster ride got intense when the Panthers, who trailed early in the game, rallied to take the lead — only to give it up in the sixth inning. They had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, but the inning ended with South Ridge looking at the wrong end of the score.
"It was obviously an emotional game," stated Olin. "It was a very tough loss to swallow with so much on the line."
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they had to bounce back and play a second game, against Ely, that didn't finish until nearly 11 p.m. They lost 5-4 as Ely then followed that win up with two more over Deer River to take the Section 7A title.
"It was very tough turning around and playing Ely," Olin remarked. "They're a good enough team without any sort of distraction or emotion. We saw that with how they came around and beat Deer River twice Thursday to win the title. Ely is a great team and congrats to them."
Overall Olin was happy with how his team played in both games on Tuesday against two quality opponents.
"We played pretty well in both games and just came up a little short in both," Olin said. "If we get a big hit, make a nice defensive play, or make a few more pitches it could have been easily a different story.
The Panthers finished an impressive season with a record of 17-5 and will lose just three players off this year's team.
"We lose three seniors: Christian Houle is a great leader and a wonderful shortstop, Vinny Wood is a great pitcher and a great competitor and Mark Lisic is a great athlete and can play anywhere. They all played important roles and they will be tough to replace," Olin said. "We have a young team. Of our 20 players on the playoff roster this year, only five were juniors and seniors, so I hope we'll be back playing as one of those final teams in the last week in the years to come, and hopefully our time will come."