While the Esko softball team looks a bit different from their state tournament squads of the past three straight seasons, Dea DeLeon doesn't see why their results have to be any different this spring.

"We all want to prove to our section that these last few years weren't a fluke," said DeLeon, the Eskomos' junior centerfielder. "We're all hungry."

That's a scary thing for opponents, with Esko entering this week's Section 7AA playoffs as the three-time reigning champs and ones turning to their title defense mode.

"It's still our section until we lose it," said coach Huff Emanuel, in his fourth season with the Eskomos and a perfect 3-for-3 in state tournament appearances. "I don't think they're taking it as pressure. I think they're ready for the challenge."

Top-seeded Esko (14-6) surely poses a challenge, as after a slow start, they have now won 10 of their past 12 entering their opening-round game with Duluth Marshall on Thursday, May 23, at 4 p.m. at Cloquet's Braun Park.

Much of that has been due to a laundry list of contributors; many of their 18-girl playoff roster who have contributed in some way, shape or form this season. Whether it be pitching, hitting or defense, the Eskomos have it - and plenty of it.

"We have as much depth on this team that I've had in my tenure," Emanuel said. "I don't know how many different starting lineups I've had in our 20 games. It's actually been a lot of fun to play with."

It's also fun to watch DeLeon and fellow junior Kristy DeMuth, a power-packed pair of veterans who have led the Eskomos at the plate all spring. While the talented tandem both sport team-best batting averages above .500, the left-handed DeLeon is seemingly always on base, while the do-it-all DeMuth leads the squad in home runs and runs batted in.

"Those two have been my rocks," Emanuel said.

Sophomore sluggers Zoie Johnson and Brenna Stark have also hit it over the fence, along with freshman everyday catcher Jayden Karppinen.

Throw in a quartet of pitchers - DeMuth, Johnson, sophomore Miranda Kelley and freshman Amber Carlblom - and Esko has enough bodies to withstand a gauntlet of a section tournament, with plenty of contenders looking to take their spot on the perch.

"We don't depend on just one person," DeMuth said.

Yet, that's not to say the Eskomos want to do what they did last year, when they lost their opening-round contest to Virginia, only to win six straight elimination games to return to North Mankato.

"I'd rather stay ahead," DeMuth said with a chuckle, recalling last season's nail-biting May.

Fellow top-seeded Proctor and second seeds Virginia and Moose Lake-Willow River all pose threats to the throne, while Mora and Eveleth-Gilbert can't be overlooked, either.

Following the Thursday, May 23, quarterfinals in Cloquet, the semifinals and finals will be played May 28 and 30 in Grand Rapids.

And still, new-look Esko is seeking the same results.

"We have a big target on our back from the last three years, but we just have to stay within ourselves," DeMuth said. "We're definitely looking to defend."

"If everyone works hard, I don't see why we can't do it," DeLeon added. "It'll be a battle."

Rebels bring big bats, big challenge

ML-WR is certainly among that battle, as the second-seeded Rebels (12-7) pack plenty of power at the plate, as evidenced in their opening-round win.

That came Tuesday, May 21, when ML-WR made their way past Pine City 11-3 in Willow River behind their heavy hitting.

Freshman Natalie Mikrot was a single away from the cycle - as she hit a double, triple and home run - while senior Kaitlin Ballantine bashed a three-run homer to back a combined pitching effort from senior Lilli Skelton and eighth-grader Sarah Christy.

"If they all come together and hit in the same game, we're going to be hard to stop," Rebels coach Kelly Goeb said.

Goeb said Section 7AA is "wide open."

"On a given day, whoever plays their best is going to come through," she said.

And her squad is certainly playing their best at the right time, winners of their last three straight entering their quarterfinal with Eveleth-Gilbert on Thursday, May 23, at Braun Park.

"All season long, you play to be peaking at the playoffs," Goeb said. "Hopefully, that's what we're going to be able to do. If they keep hitting, we'll see what happens."