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Esko players bask in state championship

Team cruises in 9-0 final, capping a 27-1 season

When AJ Kazel applied the tag on the runner for the final out of the state championship game last week, the Esko senior first baseman knew exactly what his next steps would be.

"I put that ball in my back pocket," said Kazel. "And all I wanted to do was go celebrate."

Rushing to the mound with his Esko teammates, celebrate they did as the Eskomos earned the school's first ever baseball state title June 16 with a 9-0 shutout over Perham in last Friday's Class AA state championship game at St. Paul's CHS Field, home of the Twins' Triple-A affiliate, the Saints.

Kazel grew up watching big league games. That included watching Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo pocket the final out of the 2016 World Series. So when Esko teammate Trent Ondrus' throw came from second base, the 6-foot-4 Kazel reached and snared it, slapped on the tag and secured the Eskomos' immortality.

"I make that play all the time," Kazel said. "I just wanted to make sure that I got that out."

Esko recorded all 21 outs last week without much stress. That's because pitcher Dylan Marciulionis was on point. The right-hander allowed just two hits and struck out nine Yellowjackets in the complete-game shutout.

The win avenged a loss to Perham a season ago and was added to a 3-0 victory Esko had over their western-Minnesota foes back on May 25.

Rallying for wins over No. 3-seeded Foley and No. 2 Fairmont earlier in the week, unseeded Perham's pitching staff was worn out by last Friday, as opposed to the explosive Eskomos, the No. 1 seed boasting 10 quality arms to chuck.

That included Sam Haugen, Isaak Sertich and Jackson Peterson, amongst others. Not to mention senior Cale Haugen throwing a gem in a 1-0 state quarterfinal win over St. Agnes and junior Finn Furcht flipping a 7-2 state semifinal victory over Cannon Falls.

"We had guys waiting in the wings," said Esko head coach Ben Haugen. "I think it just showed our depth. We had plenty of arms."

Marciulionis' arm was the best last Friday. At one point, he retired 11 consecutive Yellowjackets and allowed just two Perham baserunners following the first inning.

"Without him, we wouldn't have had that big of a lead," said senior centerfield teammate Ty Christensen. "Our whole pitching staff was phenomenal. They all dealt."

Perfect ending

Christensen actually threw a pair of innings in Tuesday's Polar League All-Star Game at Wade Stadium this week - his first action pitching all season - and fanned a few batters himself. The athleticism clearly shown by the future Division III Concordia College football commit next year in Moorhead.

While Christensen heads west, Kazel will travel south and play Division III baseball for the University of Northwestern. Meanwhile, Cale Haugen, the recently named Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year, will head farther south and pitch at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

It was Haugen who went sprinting to the mound with his teammates, chucking his glove toward the dugout so high it may have not come down yet.

"It was the best way I could have ended my Esko baseball career," Haugen said. "To not only get to State, but to win it all with these guys who are all so close - it was like my dad said - 'magic.' It was perfect."

Afterward, Cale shared plenty of blue medal-wearing, trophy-holding, wide-smiled photos with his dad and little brother, Sam, a sophomore starter.

Coach Haugen said he had over 130 text messages on his cell phone once he got back to the team bus.

"I don't think these boys realize how many alumni, community members and other coaches are so proud of what they did," coach Haugen said. "You gotta get a little lucky, but you have to have talent and it all came together for us. It was kind of crazy. It's still kind of surreal."

Sophomore classmates Connor Pearce and Bobby Thornton got things going in the second inning last Friday, when Pearce plated Thornton on a drive. While the 1-0 lead saw opportunities to grow pass by, Esko took control in the fifth.

Cruise control

Playing in the school's last contest as the "Eskomos" - the school board voted to retire the nickname effective June 30 - the boys in blue and gold got five runs on run-scoring hits by Sam and Cale Haugen, as well as Thornton and junior Bryce Hipp.

Esko added two more in the sixth by virtue of errors from a rattled Perham team and a double by Sertich.

Leading 8-0 in the seventh, Furcht then launched a home run over the left-field wall, capping it with an emotional chest bump with his older brother and assistant coach, Noah, as Finn returned to the dugout.

That only added to ace Cale Haugen's incredible pitching performance last Tuesday against St. Agnes and Sertich's grand slam a day later to silence Cannon Falls. Coach Haugen said his team sported the best batting average against in the state, ranked second in strikeouts and their earned run average needed a magnifying glass to see.

While they hit 28 home runs this spring, and 96 extra base hits for a team that sported a .346 batting average, it was the Eskomos' pitching staff and defensive unit - earning a pair of shutouts and only allowing one earned run all state tournament - that led them to the top.

"You're going to be in a lot of ball games when you've got guys like that," coach Haugen said of his team.

Esko, which finished 27-1, won the state title, something the players said they believed they could do.

Making amends

Last season ended abruptly after an incredible regular season. The team was stunned with back-to-back losses at the hands of Marshall and Proctor in the Section 7AA playoff semifinals. With all nine starters back, and a deep pitching staff, the Eskomos came in as one of the favorites this season.

The team spent a week in March in Orlando, Florida, where they were able to get time on a field as well as get in some scrimmaging outside of a gymnasium.

"If anything, the guys realize how important everything is after the way last season ended," coach Haugen said of a trip designed to gel the team and focus on the season. "We felt very capable last year of making a run to the state tournament and it didn't end the way we would have liked."

The sting remained all year.

"The goal was to be the best Esko team of all time," Kazel said. "We wanted to break down that barrier and make it to state. And, once we got down there, we knew we could do more than that."

"I think it finally got the monkey off our backs," Christensen said.

You could say that again. While eight Eskomos graduate, the defending champs will return 11 players, many of whom are starters and now have invaluable experience.

And even more invaluable are the connections the Eskomos made during their journey. Watching games together, celebrating constantly and creating memories that will never be lost.

"It's a memory that I'll keep with me for the rest of my life," Christensen said. "These guys are like my brothers to me."

"I don't think it's possible for me to forget this," added Cale Haugen. "I'll keep this medal forever."

Kazel, who called the team a "family," agreed.

"I'm so glad I got to experience this with these guys," he said.

A great group of boys, now crowned Class AA champions.

"To get to do it with a bunch of kids who I've been coaching since T-Ball, with my two sons, my coaches and all of these fans who have put in so much time - it's all very, very cool," said coach Haugen.

"It's starting to sink in," he said. "And you just don't want it to end."

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