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Esko Ice goes from Up North monster to Gold National Cinderella

There are national tournaments, and then there is the national tournament. Various teams qualify through state and regional play to advance to national competition, but the Esko Ice is the only team in Minnesota automatically qualified to compete...

There are national tournaments, and then there is the national tournament. Various teams qualify through state and regional play to advance to national competition, but the Esko Ice is the only team in Minnesota automatically qualified to compete in the American Softball Association's Gold Nationals in Marietta, Ga.
The distance from Duluth -- to say nothing of Esko -- to the Under-18 Gold National fast-pitch softball tournament is far greater than the two-day drive required to get there. The Esko Ice, Minnesota's premier girls Under-18 fast-pitch team, departs Saturday morning for the long haul to Marietta. They will go with no false expectations but with solid hopes to improve on last year's impressive performance.
"It's really different, and it's almost comical," said Ice coach Gary Fritch. "All year, we're the heavy favorites almost everywhere we play. In the Duluth league, or at the tournaments we go to during the season, it's big news if we get beat. Now we go to the Gold Nationals, where a team like ours could play well and not win a game. That's how tough the competition is. Last year we won two games before we lost our second in double elimination. We beat a team 1-0 that had a pitcher who's pitching for somebody in the Big Ten.
"People who haven't been there can't appreciate how difficult it is to even win one game. You've got to have everything going for you, and be lucky, as well. I would say that last year, the two teams we beat were better than the two teams that beat us. There were 64 teams in the tournament, and it seemed like almost every one of them was loaded with players already committed to or being recruited by Division I teams. And here we come, from up in northern Minnesota, with our girls from high school and Division III."
Nobody, however, will have much sympathy for the Ice, after they rolled through the regular season with a 31-4 record, cruising undefeated through both Duluth's top league and the Lake Superior Classic tournament for the sixth consecutive year. Team founder Roger Plachta said it is untrue that the Ice has never lost in the league. Plachta said the league had gone on for many years, and the Ice had lost "a lot" of games before he reorganized the league and turned it into a feeder system for the Ice.
Because Plachta used to also coach Esko High School, he based his team there, and it remains the Esko Ice even though only two players on the current team -- Janine Kuklis and Kristin Kunz -- are from Esko. The rest of the roster comes from Duluth, the Iron Range, Wisconsin and as far south as Forest Lake.
Plachta turned the team over to Fritch this season while becoming head coach at UWS, and the tradition carries on, although selecting and putting together all the players and having them win are far from automatic. Fritch points out that this year's team is young, but far more experienced than last year's outfit.
"We've got nine or 10 kids coming back with experience from last year's tournament, and we have a lot of kids with talent," said Fritch. "With the long season we've had, and so many conflicts, this will be the first time all year that we're going to have all our players together at the same time. That's going to be great, but it's also going to be tough on the coach. We're going to have to rotate some players, which means I'm going to have to sit out a real good player who has played regularly all season."
Fritch, a former star baseball pitcher at Duluth Central and UWS himself, has a more quiet, analytical approach to coaching compared to the more aggressive and vocal Plachta, and he learned a lot assisting Plachta last year. He is well aware that the Ice roster is loaded with outstanding players, including his daughter, pitcher Stephanie Fritch, a former star at Duluth Central who just finished her freshman year at Winona State.
* Pitching: "Stephanie struggled in college, but she's coming back from having lost a little confidence," said Fritch. "She's 17-2 for the season, having lost a 3-2 game to the Mankato Peppers, and a loss to the Outlaws from Illinois when we gave up three unearned runs. But she's pitched well. Allison Paitich (14-2) is a steady, strong competitor from Forest Lake. She lost a 1-0 game in the Class AA state championship game two years ago, and she's going to Concordia of St. Paul this fall."
* Catching: "April Makowski catches for Steph, just as she did through high school, and she calls a great game. She just finished her freshman year at Saint Scholastica, and I think she's definitely coaching material someday. Sarah Yrjanson from Cloquet catches for Allison, and she will be a freshman at Gustavus. She gives us the perfect complement to April, because Sarah might not be quite as good defensively as April, but she's a good hitter, probably better than April."
* First base: "Sarah Tarasewicz is usually our No. 4 hitter. She's left-handed, with quick hands, and she's hitting over .400. She's also a good power hitter. She hit one out at the Mankato tournament. She is from Gile, Wis., and is going to go to UWS.
* Second base: "Amanda Gage is also from Forest Lake, and she has recovered from hurting her ankle during the Lake Superior Classic. She's solid defensively, and she's our No. 2 hitter, handles the bat well, can bunt, and she's a good baserunner."
* Third base: "Meghan Norris will be a senior at East next year, and we were able to pick her up when her team didn't qualify for national competition. She has been a real asset. She hits for average and with power, and she delivers clutch hits and has made some big plays by being quick and aggressive defensively. I usually have her hit fourth, fifth or sixth."
* Shortstop: "Elizabeth Plante, from Cloquet, has a super glove and also has the ability to come up with clutch hits. She also is going to Concordia of St. Paul this fall."
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* Left field: "Kristin Kunz is from Esko, where she'll be a senior next year. She's a good player, a left-handed slap hitter who switches around and hits with power from the right side. She was a very good infielder in high school, and she could play anywhere for us."
* Center field: "Lindsey Erickson is from Hermantown, where she pitched them to the state Class AA tournament finals, and she'll be a senior this fall. She's quick defensively and a great leadoff hitter for us. She's hitting nearly .400."
* Right field: "Katie Kessler is going to be a senior at Greenway of Coleraine, where she pitches and catches. She is playing outfield for us, and she's really athletically gifted, with a cannon for an arm."
* Others: "Michelle Jakubek is from Central, and she played shortstop for UMD this spring. She plays outfield or shortstop, and usually bats third for us. She's a real good hitter, hitting about .350, and she can play anywhere for us, and play well. And Janine Kuklis from Esko plays outfield and first base, but I use her mostly as a designated hitter. She's tall, left-handed, and she was all-state as an eighth-grader."
As Fritch noted, the Ice will have its full complement of players and he will have to do some juggling. Kunz, Norris and Gage were the only players who didn't play in last year's National tournament, where the competition is fierce and the schedule is grueling.
"When we leave Saturday, we'll take two days to drive there," Fritch said. "Opening ceremonies are Monday, then they have a blind draw for pool play, which will be conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, then they have another draw for the top pool teams for eliminations. From then on, it's double elimination."
The blue and gold team from the tiny "Duluth suburb" of Esko has been focused on returning to the ASA Gold Nationals all season, and while other area teams are participating on other levels of nationals in different classes, Minnesota's best fast-pitch team is ready for another shot at national prominence.

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