Miranda Kelley stalks the pitching mound with an attitude that belies her 5-foot frame.
The Esko senior pitcher stomps the dirt with a purpose, pounds the softball in her glove with a thud and then delivers a nearly unhittable pitch to the opponent.
Even when she’s in trouble, as she was occasionally during Friday’s 3-2 victory over Duluth East, Kelley is undeterred.
“I just dig down deep,” she said. “My dad has always said, ‘Nobody bigger than you.’ I may be 5-foot but I’m 7-foot underneath (my uniform). That’s my attitude, nobody bigger than me and nobody can beat me unless I beat myself.”
So when Eskomos coach Jeff Emanuel approached the mound behind Ordean East Middle School in the bottom of the seventh inning with Esko up one run and the Greyhounds threatening, Kelley wasn’t about to take any guff.
“When I went out there in the seventh, she said, ‘I got this.’ I said, ‘I know you do,’ ” Emanuel related. “I just wanted to come out and settle things down and see where she was at.”
Despite allowing base hits to the first two batters of the inning and later walking a batter, Kelley recorded the final two of her 13 strikeouts and then chalked up another win when second baseman Brenna Stark reached behind her head to grab Macey DeRosier’s blooper for the last out.
“I love this team,” said Kelley, who tossed a six-hitter and walked only one. “We have the bats, we have the fielding, we have the pitching, we have the catcher. We have everything we need.”
Esko (6-0) entered averaging nearly 16 runs per game but only managed nine hits off East’s Cassie Bergman. The Eskomos left seven players on base so they needed quality pitching to stay undefeated.
“She’s by far the best pitcher I’ve seen this year — we had a hard time handling the movement on her ball,” East coach Dennis Peterson said. “The more pitchers we see like that, the better we’ll get. Her accuracy is really good, her change in speeds is good. She’s not just a thrower, she’s a good pitcher.”
Esko scored its first two runs on bunts by Kelley and catcher Jayden Karppinen in the third inning. Amber Carlblom’s RBI single in the sixth made it 3-0.
No-hit for the first three innings, East (1-3) put runners at second and third base in the fourth without scoring and then saw its first five runners reach base in the fifth only to not score as Esko made two forceouts at home plate.
Emanuel credited his five senior infielders for making good decisions.
“It’s always nice to have seniors in those spots who know what to do,” he said.
Playing a Class AAAA team should help Esko prepare for what could be a free-for-all in the Section 7AA playoffs.
“Off and on we’ve been playing hard teams, easy teams. But this was a good team,” the right-handed Kelley said. “I came in here thinking it would be an easy win and it wasn’t.”
Esko won four consecutive section titles until being deprived of defending when the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Eskomos have the weapons to win again, especially on the mound, and aren’t afraid to voice their confidence.
“It’s our section to lose — we’ve had it for four years prior to (2020),” Emanuel said.
A repeat, in large part, depends on the dependable Kelley.
She’s happy to get one more chance.
“It’s great to be with my seniors one last year because we didn’t know if we were going to get this because of COVID,” she said. “This season is a blessing for me to play my senior year with the girls I’ve always wanted to be with. It’s like a big family.”
Esko 3, Duluth East 2
WP: Miranda Kelley 7IP, 1ER, 6H, 13K, 1BB. LP: Cassie Bergman 7IP, 2R, 9H, 3K, 1BB. E: Kelley 2x4, RBI; Jayden Karppinen RBI; Amber Carlblom RBI; Brenna Stark 2x3 (2B); Olivia Johnson 2B. DE: Bergman 2x3 (2 2B); Meg Nelson RBI.