"It was better than staying inside."

Esko baseball coach Ben Haugen was given to understatement after his team defeated South Ridge 9-4 on Monday in the season opener for his Eskomos.

The Panthers are one season removed from a deep playoff run and are one of the teams to beat in the region. And the Eskomos did just that.k

"I'm happy with how we played," Haugen said. "We know South Ridge is good. They went to state last year and returned most everybody. We got down early but battled, and we hit the ball better than I thought we would."

Senior Mason Vinje started on the mound for Esko and threw three innings, followed by sophomore Noah Furcht, who went three and two-thirds. Junior Hunter Sunde got the last out of the game.

Offensively, James LeGarde was 2-for-5 and drove in two runs, while Peyton Koskela had two doubles and scored twice. Vinje and Tyler Koskela each had a pair of hits and an RBI for the Eskomos.

The Panthers were paced by two hits apiece from Elias Tuominen, Logan Young and Aaron Bennett. The Panthers rebounded to defeat Carlton 6-3 on Tuesday.

But for Esko, there was a lot to be happy about.

"I was telling the kids early on that I didn't think we'd strike out a lot of people, but our pitchers got 11," Haugen said. "Early on, the pitching has an advantage, and we got some great work from Noah in the middle of the game."

Still Haugen describes his six-senior outfit as inexperienced. That's because the Eskomos graduated eight starters from last year as part of a very talented group.

"Four or five of those kids played as sophomores, and that's hard to replace," Haugen said. "But we have a lot of people coming up who want to prove us wrong for not playing them earlier. I think we'll be up and down at the beginning of the year, but we do have a very capable team. We just might be under the radar a bit."

The desire to prove themselves should be an incentive for the Eskomos.

If you don't have a lot of that desire to prove yourself, you probably shouldn't be playing varsity sports," Haugen said.

Haugen sees South Ridge and Cook County as conference teams to beat. "It was good to get a win in such an important game right away," Haugen said of the South Ridge game. "But in the section, Marshall is the team to beat."

The Hilltoppers are loaded, with nearly everyone back from a state runner-up team a season ago. "The perennials are Proctor and Mora and Aitkin and I'd like to think we'll be in the mix," Haugen said. "But everyone wants to be the team that faces Marshall. They've got two Division I talents, a few Division II players and some Scholastica kids. They are stacked."

So, the curve for Esko is especially steep, which means the senior leaders have to lead quickly.

"We have six seniors on this years' team and so far all of them have done a great job," Haugen said "There are some kids I've had in class so I know we're getting quality character kids, but also good baseball players."

Esko is scheduled to play Moose Lake on April 11 and Superior on April 12, weather permitting.