Former Cloquet, Esko softball standouts embrace new roles at Minnesota Duluth

Roommates Kiana Bender and Dea DeLeon are navigating their freshman year and pandemic life together in college.

Former Cloquet standout Kiana Bender (left) and Esko's Dea DeLeon have both embraced new roles as freshmen for the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. (Photo courtesy of Dea DeLeon)

College freshmen are typically excited to get to campus, make new friends and socialize away from their families and friends at home.

Sometimes, they’re even a little too eager.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that, forcing college students into their dorm rooms for most of the school year. Athletes in particular have been abiding by social distancing and other protocols in an attempt to avoid exposing themselves to the coronavirus and remain eligible to play.

Minnesota Duluth freshman Dea DeLeon, an Esko softball standout from the 2019 Section 7AA championship team, and her roommate, Kiana Bender, a three-sport star who led the Cloquet Lumberjacks to a third-place finish in the 2019 Minnesota AAA tournament, have spent a lot of time together this year.

“It’s just odd because of all the stories that you hear, especially from your parents who are like, ‘Oh, I met my best friends in my college dorm,’” Dea DeLeon said. “We didn’t really get to do that.”


Kiana Bender (8) of Minnesota Duluth hits the ball against Upper Iowa on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

The pair felt the difference in what their friends and family had experienced throughout the year.

“If we had a normal year, we would get to know a lot of other students,” Bender said. “But we really can’t because with softball, we have strict rules and basically we only got to know other athletes.”

Instead of spending freshman year meeting new people, they spent their first semester largely isolated from other students and even the upperclassmen on the team. UMD head coach Jen Walter said while there are 11 freshmen on the 2021 squad, the only time they spent with more experienced teammates was at fall practice.

Team-bonding efforts were limited until spring practice began in February — about three weeks later than usual — but when Walter arrived at practice, she saw groups of upperclassmen and freshmen chatting.

“We just didn’t have the opportunity to interact and really get to know each other,” Walter said. “But when we started traveling — that bus time, that hotel time — and once we got into our locker room, those are times when you just have random interactions and you don’t just talk about softball. That is when I really saw our team come together.”


Dea Deleon (3) of Minnesota Duluth leads off from first base against Upper Iowa on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

Bender has been an immediate contributor to the team, hitting .288 with five doubles, five home runs and 26 RBIs through 40 games. What’s more, with multi-year starters populating the Bulldog infield, Walter was forced to move Bender to the outfield and away from her natural position at shortstop.

"Kiana reads the ball really well and she just has a good sense for the game,” Walter said. “She’s done a really good job transitioning to the outfield and that was important because we like that she can hit and we wanted to find a way to keep her bat in the lineup.”

DeLeon has played less, with just one at-bat this season, but she has grown into her role as the Bulldogs’ go-to pinch runner.

Kiana Bender (8) of Minnesota Duluth catches a fly ball against Upper Iowa on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

“That’s crucial for us to be able to rely on a freshman to come off the bench and make really good decisions on the field,” Walter said. “It’s not just about being fast — it’s about making good, quick decisions and she has made some mistakes out there, but the cool thing about Dea is she takes instruction really, really well.”

Despite having just the single plate appearance this season, DeLeon has still scored eight runs.


“I definitely know my role and I’m willing to work with it,” DeLeon said. “I’m willing to do whatever. If coach says, ‘You’re running,’ I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go, coach. I’m ready.’”

The Bulldogs (27-13) have four games left in the regular season and are currently fourth in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference standings. The conference tournament begins Thursday, May 13, in Rochester.

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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