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No. 1 Esko remains the team to beat

Defending Minnesota Class AA baseball champion Esko will carry a 15-0 record into a split doubleheader against Pequot Lakes and Moose Lake/Willow River Friday afternoon in Moose Lake.

"We defeated Pequot Lakes 2-0 last season and expect another competitive game against them, and Moose Lake is improving with some veteran leaders," said Esko head coach Ben Haugen.

Ranked No. 1 in Class AA, Esko will face a greater challenge next week, with a home game against Duluth Marshall on Monday, May 20, followed by potentially challenging matchups at Cloquet on May 22 and at Grand Rapids on May 23.

"The winner of the Duluth Marshall will land the No. 1 seed in the (Section) 7AA tournament," Haugen said. "Us and Duluth Marshall have the two deepest pitching staffs in the area."

Esko pitching ace Finn Furcht will likely get the start against the Hilltoppers, who feature ultra-elite senior shortstop Carter Boos and junior pitcher Max Berrisford.

Furcht's stats at the start of this week: 5-0 won-loss, 1.19 earned run average, 61 strikeouts.

"Finn is a four-year varsity performer who's having another quality season," Haugen said.

Esko's lights-out pitching staff also includes senior Dylan Marciulionis (4-0, 1.84 ERA), junior fireballer Jackson Peterson (3-0, 0.47 ERA) and closer Sam Haugen (five saves, 0.55 ERA).

Esko's team ERA is 1.21.

"You'll win a lot of games when your opponents aren't scoring runs," said Haugen, who celebrated 300 career coaching wins on May 10. "Pitching carried us to the state title last season, with three great starters, including Finn and Dylan. Experienced pitching has led to our success again this season. Our strikeout-to-walk ratio is 6-1, which is fantastic."

Esko's offense is also hitting its stride, Haugen said, following a slow start to begin the season. The team batting average was .322 to begin this week.

Junior center fielder Sam Haugen, leads the team in batting average (.444), runs batted in (20), hits (16), doubles (8) and stolen bases (10). Marciulionis is hitting .405, Bobby Thorton and Furcht .385 each, senior Bryce Hipp .375 (team-high .650 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot) and senior Isaak Sertich .342.

"Two guys seem to carry us offensively each game," Haugen said.

Notebook

The 16-team Section 7AA tournament begins May 28 with single-elimination games in the first and second rounds, followed by a double-elimination final-four playdown on a yet-to-be-determined date and location. Esko, Duluth Marshall and Proctor are section favorites, in that order.

"We have an outstanding group, and we expect to win," said Haugen, now in his 17th season at Esko. "Baseball is the first sport for many of our three-sport student-athletes."

Quotable

Haugen on the possibility of finishing the regular season 20-0: "It would be nice to run the table, but we lost our final regular season game a year ago. Losing was a good wakeup call for our players, and in hindsight, losing was a good thing. Candidly, I wouldn't be too upset if we lose one here."

Haugen on Esko's home park: "We've put a lot of work into the field in the last 20 years. The flood in 2012 took out our dugouts, but we raised a lot of money and contributed a great deal of sweat equity. Today, we have one of the best natural turf fields in the area."

 
 
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