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Softball: Esko, ML-WR face off in semifinal

In a spring season where weather has played such a dominant role, it was fitting in a way that Moose Lake-Willow River and Esko's Section 7AA semifinal matchup should be halted by rain.

After winning twice in the Tuesday, May 29, losers' bracket, the Eskomos (19-4) led the Rebels (14-7) 4-1 in the third inning when the rains came in Cloquet.

The game was scheduled to be finished Wednesday, May 30, as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press, with the winner facing Virginia in the section title game. The Rebels reached the winners' bracket semifinals before falling 7-3 to the Blue Devils earlier Tuesday.

"Virginia is a good team," Rebels coach Kelly Goeb said. "They threw well against us, hit the ball well and that's what you need."

Virginia's Ava Warren struck out 11 Rebels and walked one, scattering six hits. Laura Walker worked the first two innings for Moose Lake-Willow River and took the loss. Jamie Benzie and Lauren Pederson had two hits each for the Rebels, with Pederson hitting a home run.

"I'm most proud of how this group has come together and played as a team," Goeb said. "Any time you get deep into the playoffs, it means you're doing well and improving and getting better."

They face an Esko team that clearly respects them.

"They're a very good team," Esko coach Jeff Emanuel said. "We have four good top seeds in this section for a reason. We can't look past anyone. We can't afford to."

Emanuel feels a bit fortunate to have his Eskomos in the situation they're in, after a shock second-round loss to Virginia (14-8) put Esko into the losers' bracket much earlier than anticipated.

"At least we still have the opportunity," he said. "We've been struggling at the plate, playing more small ball and creating things, manufacturing runs. We're doing it, but not the normal 'Esko way.'"

Pitcher Emilee Wilson worked 17 innings Tuesday at Braun Park — leading her team to must-win victories over International Falls (5-4) and Proctor (5-3) before working three innings against the Rebels before the rains came.

Wilson fell behind 4-0 against the Broncos in the first game before Esko reeled in their opponents.

"I was standing at third base in the fourth inning thinking about what I might say to the players in case we lost," Emanuel said. "But then Hannah Stark said she wasn't ready to quit playing, and instead I said, 'Then we have to pick up the pace."

Esko did, with Wilson picking up two hits and two walks to help herself. Davriana Horvath had an RBI double and Ashley Pollema an RBI triple to key the comeback.

Then Esko eliminated the Rails behind a nine-strikeout, no-walk performance from Wilson. Madison Rambow had a double, scored twice, walked twice and drove in a run for Esko, which got two hits from Jenna Zdebski and RBI hits from Stark and Wilson.

Emanuel was proud of how his team rebounded — but also of Wilson.

"That's where Emilee is at in her career," he said. "She's such a gamer. I walked up to her after the second game to see if she could pitch against Moose Lake and she said 'I'm good' before I got my question in. I said 'OK' and walked away."

But the two old rivals have to finish playing first before seeing who gets to face Virginia.

"A lot of our younger kids have been the spark plugs for us," Emanuel said. "The seniors jumped on their backs. It's been a total team thing."

Loeb's view is similar.

"No matter what happens against Esko, the season will have been a success," she said. "For us, a successful season is where you have fun, enjoy yourselves and learn more about the game. We would like to think the future will be bright for us no matter what happens."

The winner of Wednesday's makeup game is scheduled to play Virginia at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 31, at Braun Park, with Esko or Moose Lake-Willow River needing to win twice to reach state.