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Esko star leads team to brink of State

Haugen hits, pitches to help bring team back to title game

Since the days of T-ball, Ben Haugen has been coaching his son, Cale, how to throw, catch, hit and run.

Tuesday was evidence of just that.

Cale, now an Esko senior and do-it-all pitcher, hurled a complete-game two-hitter and struck out 10 batters in leading his Eskomos to a 7-1 victory over Rock Ridge during a Section 7AA baseball game Tuesday afternoon at Wade Stadium in Duluth. Esko was propelled into Thursday's championship against Mora.

Not only did the flame throwing righthander deal on the mound - Haugen's fastball has been clocked as high as 91 miles per hour - but he had a big day at the plate, knocking out two hits, the first of which was an inside-the-park home run after the Wolverines' centerfielder attempted a dive and let Haugen's hit roll to the wall.

"I saw it get by him and I just put my head down and started burning," Haugen said afterward.

Admitting his heart was racing, when he crossed home plate, Haugen let out an emotional cheer with his ecstatic teammates, as Haugen's homer - his 10th of the season - was a tone-setter.

Setting the tempo of the game has been something Haugen has done all season; his numbers provide the proof. In just 24 games, the Division II Minnesota State University Mankato commit sports a team-best .553 batting average, featuring 42 hits in 76 at-bats, compared to just two strikeouts. Haugen boasts 13 doubles, 42 RBIs and of course, those 10 dingers.

On the hill, he's perfect, carrying a 7-0 record as the undoubted ace who has punched out 86 batters in 44.1 innings thrown. His blistering fastball is tough to hit, while his breaking balls move like a Wiffle ball.

All said, Haugen was recently named the 2023 Gatorade Minnesota Baseball Player of the Year. The stalwart was the first from the Northland to earn the coveted award since Greenway catcher Justin Tomberlin in 1989. Tomberlin went on to play Division I hockey and baseball for the University of Maine.

"I woke up and I got a call from my dad," said Haugen. "I had no idea it was coming. It's super cool. Seeing the list of people who have won that award like Clayton Kershaw, Joe Mauer, Derek Jeter, it's ridiculous. Just awesome."

While Haugen is headed to be a Maverick next year, the Esko leader still has more on his to-do list in Esko.

Coming oh so close a season ago, the Eskomos (23-1) made it their mission to avenge last year's heartbreak and get to the state tournament. It's been on their minds all spring.

"That's been the ultimate goal all year," said Haugen, whose little brother, Sam, is the team's shortstop. "That's where everyone said they wanted to go: the state tournament. We're one game away."

That determination was on display Tuesday, as their trio of first-inning runs held a 3-1 lead entering the fifth inning, when Esko's explosive offensive came to life, as three hits scored three runs, led by Isaak Sertich's second laser double to left field, part of a 3-for-3 day at the dish.

"We like to be aggressive," said Setich of a seemingly endless array of offensive firepower. "Our whole roster wants to get out there and if we put anyone in, we're confident. We're athletic and everyone knows their role. And, things got sparked in that fifth inning."

Sertich scored again in the seventh to take any life away from Rock Ridge, a team that couldn't quite be opportunistic when the chances arose, stranding 10 runners on base and having both hits with nobody on.

"We did not take advantage and we needed to," said Wolverines head coach Jamie Lindseth. "That was the difference today. Other than that, it was a pretty close game."

The Wolverines were later eliminated by Mora.

Should Esko defeat Mora in Thursday's 7AA championship, it would be Esko baseball's first state appearance since 2000.

"We've been hungry," Setich said.

"We're pretty good top to bottom," added coach Haugen, now in his 17th season at Esko, noting his team has hit 26 home runs this spring. "Our offense is about as good as I've ever had."

While confident, Esko will need to navigate by the Mustangs, a team that has won four consecutive elimination games - knocking out International Falls, Pine City, Proctor and Rock Ridge - since their last loss to Esko on May 30, which Esko won 10-0.

And if Esko punches its ticket, the moment will be emotionally deserved.

Especially for a proud Haugen family, working since those early T-ball days.

"It'd be pretty cool to do it with this group of kids and my two sons playing," said coach Haugen, getting a little choked up afterward. "It's tough being a coach and a dad at the same time, but if we could figure it out, it would all be worth it."

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