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Backs to the wall ... then back to State

Esko takes two to oust Marshall

A mostly failed Section 7AA championship surprise Gatorade shower, courtesy of his giddy players, sent legendary Esko baseball skipper Ben Haugen ducking for cover during an onfield post-game interview.

The coach, who is quick enough to dodge drops during the rain storms that peppered section play last week, was equally adept at explaining how his team won a second-straight 7AA title by clipping Duluth Marshall 10-3 and 4-2 last Thursday night at Wade Stadium in Duluth.

It was a stunning turnaround from the day before, when Marshall demoralized Esko in a 9-0 win in the double-elimination tournament. It meant Esko would have to crawl out of the elimination bracket to get another crack at the Hilltoppers - twice to get to state.

"We got great pitching performances from Sam (Haugen) and Finn (Furcht), and overall we played some pretty clean baseball," Haugen said. "We tip our cap to Marshall, which has a heckuva team. It was just an unbelievable performance all around."

The wins earned Esko a shot at winning a second Minnesota Class AA state title starting Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.

After the dispiriting 9-0 loss to Marshall in the semifinals last Wednesday, Esko needed to beat Proctor and then get the two wins against the Hilltoppers to have a chance to defend its state title from last season

"Coming back through the elimination bracket and having to win two with our backs against the wall, it talks a lot about the kids' resiliency," Haugen said. "I think having done it last year helped, just overcoming the pressure."

Bryce Hipp's monstrous two-run home run over the left field wall in the second inning gave Esko, which trailed 1-0 after one inning in the second game Thursday against Marshall, a major boost of adrenaline and confidence.

"Mr. Hipp got all of that one," Haugen said of the burly senior catcher's estimated 410-foot blast that found a protective net stretched high atop the 12-foot outfield cement wall.

Esko had several chances to bury Marshall in the nightcap, and relied on Furcht's pitching and stellar defense down the stretch.

"We left a couple out there that would've made the game a little bit more comfortable in the end, but that's baseball," Haugen said. "And again, Marshall's a great team, and we knew it would be a battle like this. We knew the game that we played against them yesterday (the 9-0 Esko loss) wasn't indicative of the kind of games that these were going to be today."

The head coach knew it would be a challenge to come back in the double-elimination tournament.

"I've been saying all along that I thought that either Marshall or us could win the whole thing," Haugen said, meaning a state title. "I mean, since 2018, our section winners have had more wins in the state tournament than any other section. You have to win your first game at State, when you have to go with your top pitchers.

Furcht held the Hilltoppers to four hits and walked three in a complete-game victory in the clincher.

"My plan was to throw strikes, throw to contact, and trust my fielders while keeping my pitch count down," he said. "After a challenging start there in the first inning, there weren't too many hard-hit balls and the guys behind me made all the plays."

That was a stark contrast to the Wednesday loss, when Marshall scored most of its runs off Esko errors.

"Obviously, having two good arms left certainly helps," Haugen said of the strategy on Thursday. "These kids have won a lot of baseball games together. They love being around each other, and they love coming to the ballpark. And when those things come together, winning is secondary."

Furcht said Esko's "secret sauce" is that togetherness.

"We're all brothers and hang out together," the righthander said. "It's about having fun, on the field and off, and we're relentless between the lines. We won't lose."

He had much to say about his teammates.

"Sam (Haugen) will hit the ball in every single at-bat, and he will come in and close every game he needs to," Furcht said. "Dylan (Marciulionis) throws strikes, and good luck hitting against him. And Isaac (Sertich) makes some nasty plays at third base."

Coach Haugen deserves a share of the credit for Esko's success, Furcht said. "Coach loves us, has so much faith in us and wants us to be the best we can be. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and he's always there for us."

Furcht is a probable starter in the state opener, with Marciulionis and Sam Haugen available in relief.

"The plan is take 'em one game at a time, have some fun, and keep the season going," Furcht said. "I doubt that there will be any nerves in our way."

Esko was named the top seed in the Minnesota State Class AA Baseball Tournament. The team was set to face Montevideo in the opener at 3 p.m. Thursday in St. Cloud. The next round of games were slated for Friday afternoon, including consolation and third-place finals. The championship game at Target Field in Minneapolis is set for 1 p.m. Monday, June 17.