CLOQUET - All spring, Esko softball coach Jeff Emanuel has told his bold pitcher, Miranda Kelley, that she's 4-foot-11, which really chagrined the sophomore. Kelley repeatedly protested, fighting for an extra inch.
A funny thing happened Thursday at Braun Park, where the Eskomos defeated Proctor 8-1 en route to a fourth consecutive Section 7AA title. Both were willing to concede.
"I told her after the game, 'You're 5-foot today,' " Emanuel said. "Because she grew up a little bit."
Asked for some clarification, Kelley said: "I'm 4-11. I'm just gonna go with it. I'm not going to argue. My hair gives me 5 feet, but I'm 4-11."
It doesn't matter how tall Kelley is, especially if she pitches the way she did Thursday. Which is to say, democratic. A year after Emilee Wilson victimized opposing hitters with one strikeout after another while being named the News Tribune's All-Area Player of the Year, Kelley puts the ball in play.
Proctor's Ashley Hanson led off the game with a single, and that was the only hit Kelley allowed.
She fanned four Rails, and her defenders turned a bevy of grounders and fly balls into outs. It's a different style than what Wilson brought to the Eskomos, but no less effective.
"I don't strike people out, but I do look for routine plays, for easy plays," Kelley said. "So if somebody's on first, I'll make sure I can get a groundball to my second baseman, or maybe just a popup in the middle of the field. I don't care - I don't look for strikeouts. Because I trust my team with all my heart.
"It works. Hey, we're going down to state. Fourth time in a row."
Esko (18-6) was coming off a narrow 4-3 victory against Proctor (20-5) in Tuesday's winner's bracket final, but this one featured no such drama.
Kristy DeMuth pushed a two-out triple down the right-field line in the bottom of the first inning to score Dea DeLeon, and DeLeon then snapped a 1-1 tie in the third by bouncing a two-run single up the middle - one of her three hits.
The Eskomos effectively put the game away with a four-run fourth.
This was, perhaps, the least likely of Esko's four straight 7AA crowns. That's because Wilson highlighted a terrific senior class in 2018, the graduation of which sapped a wealth of firepower from the Eskomos this time around. But they reloaded.
"I knew we were rebuilding in a weird way because we lost four really talented players, but we had some young kids coming up," Emanuel said. "Unlikely? I don't know. Yeah, maybe. We struggled a little bit early on, but it just all came together toward the end."
Indeed, Esko is 17-3 since a 1-3 start. And headed back to the Class AA state tournament.
"In my head, I expected to go again if we put in the work and focused every single day in practice," DeLeon said.
This postseason was far less nerve-racking for the Eskomos than last spring, when they dropped their playoff opener to Virginia before winning six in a row, including three by one run.
Esko will find out this weekend who it will play in its state opener June 6 at Caswell Park in North Mankato.
SECTION 7AA FINAL
Esko 8, Proctor 1
At Braun Park. WP: Miranda Kelley 7IP, 1R (0ER), 1H, 4K. LP: Liz Frase. E: Kelley 2x3, 2RBIs, R; Dea DeLeon 3x3, 2RBIs, R; Kristy DeMuth 3B, RBI; Kaitlyn Bergerson 2x4, R; P: Ashley Hanson 1x3.