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Little Esko Nitro up for big challenge at baseball regional

Youth baseball teams are generally a collection of All-Stars once the postseason begins. That's certainly the case at the Intermediate Little League Central Regional Tournament this week in Kalamazoo, Mich. But Team Minnesota, the Esko Nitro, is ...

Youth baseball teams are generally a collection of All-Stars once the postseason begins.

That's certainly the case at the Intermediate Little League Central Regional Tournament this week in Kalamazoo, Mich. But Team Minnesota, the Esko Nitro, is a little different.

"We've all created All-Star teams, but we're down here with towns that are drawing from two to three hundred thousand people," Nitro manager Shawn Northey said. "We say, 'Our population is 4,000.' And they say, '40,000?' And we say, 'No, 4,000.'"

And that's a stretch. Esko's population was 1,869 as of the 2010 census.

"We're just a 6-by-6 township, basically," Northey said, laughing. "That's all the kids we can draw from."

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That hasn't kept Team Minnesota from being one of two unbeaten squads remaining in the nine-team, double-elimination tournament. The Nitro (8-0 overall, 2-0 tournament) play the other 2-0 team, host West Portage (Mich.), at 6 p.m. today, with the winner being in the driver's seat toward advancing to the inaugural Intermediate Little League World Series July 30 to Aug. 5 at Max Baer Park in Livermore, Calif. Today's winner advances to Friday's championship round while the loser would have to come through the loser's bracket to advance to Livermore.

"It's huge," Northey said of today's game. "If you win, you get to sit back and watch everyone knock each other off and then have to try to beat us twice on Friday."

The Nitro are the combination of two Esko youth teams and are coached by Jim Kaldahl and Eric Rish.

While even casual baseball fans are familiar with the Little League Baseball World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., for 11- and 12-year-olds, with 46 feet from the mound to home plate and 60 feet between the bases, Intermediate Little League is for those 13 years and younger and features dimensions of 50 and 70 feet.

"There was enough of a push to say, 'It's too hard for kids to go from a 60-foot diamond to a 90-foot diamond in one year,'" Northey said.

Down 4-3 on Monday night against Georgetown (Jenison, Mich.), Brendan Durand had a two-run double as Team Minnesota scored five runs in the bottom of the fourth inning en route to a 9-7 victory. Quinn Fischer got the win, allowing two runs in five innings while striking out two. Ryan Nelson added two hits.

Now Team Minnesota is just two wins away from the biggest stage in Intermediate Little League.

"Little League is endorsing this, and I'm a big believer in it, too," Northey said. "Even in a small town like Esko, we still have 26 kids playing at that age, so that's great for baseball."

Related Topics: BASEBALL
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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