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Talent needs to cover inexperience in Esko

Following a 17-7 season last year, the Esko softball team will need to overcome the loss of five starters, including two pitchers, if they are to contend for a section title.

Coach Jeff "Huff" Emanuel is optimistic - he just has to puzzle out where players fit best.

"We did lose a lot, but I think we have some very athletic and talented players who can take those positions," Emanuel said.

There is an old baseball adage that a team needs to be strong up the middle, which means the catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder need to be strong if a team is to be successful. The Eskomos lost all of those players from last year to graduation, with the exception of junior Bailey Plante, who will move from second to shortstop this season.

Along with Plante, senior Raegen Olson returns and will move from third base to second this season. Stellar senior athlete Avery Kuklinski will move from right field to center field to help solidify the outfield. Junior Kaelyn Foxx will now carry the bulk of the pitching duties after seeing some time at that position last season. When she isn't pitching, she may also see playing time at first base.

"Kaelyn will need to take that next step up this season on the mound for us, but she throws hard and if she is on, she is tough to hit against," Emanuel said. "We also will look to eighth-grader Keira Leach to throw some innings for us. She is great at hitting her spots and changing speeds."

Freshman Brynn Christianson will see the bulk of the innings at catcher with sophomore Rilee Durovec acting as a top utility player who can play anywhere, including catcher.

Two seniors, Alayna Peterson and Lizzie Hartlieb, will be key players, with Peterson seeing time in the outfield and possibly in the infield while Hartlieb will start the season as the third baseman.

Emanuel got a pleasant surprise when another talented athlete, Hannah Swanson, decided to come out for softball for the first time in about four or five years. She will give the Eskomos a good glove at first base.

Look for freshman Clara Swanson to be somewhere in the lineup because of her strong bat.

"We went a few weeks ago and scrimmaged at the Eden Prairie dome against Maple Grove and Blaine, and Clara had no fear at the plate," Emanuel said. "Nothing affects her; she hits the ball well, and doesn't get cheated in her at-bats."

If the Eskomos are to get back to the state tournament, they will need to beat defending champion Proctor as well as Eveleth-Gilbert, which gave Esko three of its seven losses a year ago, including a semifinal playoff game.

Esko may have a slight advantage at the beginning of the season, thanks to efforts to clear their field of snow over the past month. When reached by phone this week, Emanuel had just completed dragging the field for the first time this season, which means the field is nearly playable already.

"We are trying to put players in the best position for the team," said Emanuel. "I think a lot of coaches from the area may look at this as a rebuilding year for us. We aren't afraid to move kids around and figure it out as we go along. We have the talent - now it is up to us to try and figure out the puzzle pieces."

With the late snowpack causing multiple postponed games this week, Esko softball is now set to open its season Thursday, April 20, at Mesabi East High School, where it will play Moose Lake/Willow River at 11 a.m. and Two Harbors at 12:30 p.m., weather permitting. On Friday, April 21, they host the Carlton/Wrenshall Raptors at 1:30 p.m. and Cloquet at 4 p.m.

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