CLOQUET - A year ago, Jenna Zdebski was on the Esko track and field team.
A hockey player in the winter, Zdebski was looking for a new spring challenge but didn't want to resort to being a slapper on the softball team.
Instead of being the prototypical left-handed slapper - a player who just tries to get contact on the ball and beat out the throw to first base - Esko softball coach Jeff Emanuel leveled with Zdebski from the outset.
"I told her, 'Nope, you're not going to be a slapper, you're going to hit the ball,' " Emanuel said Friday. "And she leads our team in hitting average and is one of the hottest hitters in this section by far."
Zdebski sent an Ava Warren pitch over the right-field wall at Braun Park on Friday, part of Esko's 5-2 victory in the Section 7AA championship game.
"It felt really good," Zdebski said of her fourth-inning solo homer. "It was inside and high and I really liked it."
It was Zdebski's first home run of her varsity career and it helped the Eskomos (22-4) reach the state tournament for the third consecutive season. Esko will find out Saturday morning which opponent it will face in a Class AA quarterfinal next Thursday in North Mankato, Minn.
"We knew she had experience, but didn't think she would play as big of a role on this team as she has played this year," pitcher Emilee Wilson said of Zdebski. "She had a great attitude from day one (of practice) and showed she was going to be a tough out in our lineup."
Wilson is another big reason why the Eskomos are headed back to Caswell Park for a third straight season. The senior hurler allowed seven hits and struck out seven as Esko completed a remarkable run through the double-elimination tournament.
Beaten 3-1 by Virginia in the opening game of the tournament, the Eskomos needed to win six games in a row to claim the section title.
They did exactly that, winning three one-run games including 2-1 over Virginia on Thursday.
"Right after we got beat by Virginia the first time, I told them 'It was do or die. We have to play game-by-game, inning-by-inning and pitch-by-pitch,' " Emmanuel recalled. "We had to win (six) games and today's pregame speech was 'Five of the six are done and now we have to finish the last stage.' And they did it."
Wilson pitched 35 innings since Tuesday, winning five games.
"We definitely didn't make it easy on ourselves," she said. "Mentally it's a challenge. We just told ourselves to take it a game at a time, a pitch at a time."
Esko scored three runs in the second inning off Warren, who tossed a four-hitter, struck out five and also hit a home run. Ashley Pollema singled and scored on Zdebski's single to start the decisive inning. Kristy DeMuth then socked a two-out triple to right field to score Zdebski and stole home for a 3-0 lead.
Zdebski made it 4-1 with her homer and Wilson brought home another run in the fifth with a double.
Those key hits marked the difference from the first playoff meeting between the teams.
"The first time we played them, our bats weren't there," Wilson said. "The difference between last week and today is that our bats came around, and we really needed that."