Under normal circumstances, Esko’s Miranda Kelley and Zoie Johnson would have been excited for this weekend’s Minnesota high school state track and field meet.
Kelley’s cousin, Cloquet senior Kendra Kelley, is the state’s top girls sprinter and would have been favored to defend her Class AA 200-meter title until a quadriceps tear last month ended her season.
Johnson is one of the Northland’s top shot put and discus hurlers but failed to qualify for the Class A state meet.
But the sophomore teammates have an even better plan of action this week as the Eskomos (18-6) qualified for their fourth consecutive state softball tournament and will face top-seeded Norwood-Young America (23-2) in a Class AA quarterfinal at 9 a.m. Thursday at Caswell Park in North Mankato, Minn.
Kelley is the team’s starting pitcher while Johnson is the designated player who has filled in at pitcher during some key moments this season.
Eskomos coach Jeff Emanuel is glad to have them both on the roster.
“The best thing about (Kelley) is that she’s fearless,” Emanuel said. “She hits her spots 90 percent of the time. She’s a battler. If you ever watched her pitch, you’d think she wants to fight somebody. For someone who is 4-foot-11, she’s not intimidated by anyone.”
Kelley says she uses that to her advantage on the mound.
“They think I’m small so they are going to hit off me, but I’m going to prove them wrong,” she said before a recent practice.
Kelley never ran track, turning to softball instead as a youth. She transferred from Cloquet, where her sister Vanna recently graduated, to Esko before eighth grade.
Now she’s tasked with facing a Raiders lineup that is hitting .431 as a team and features the state’s top hitter in Sadie Erickson (.641 batting average, 50 RBIs).
“I thought we’d make it far, but not this far because we had a lot of new girls,” Kelley said of a team with 10 underclassmen. “I’m a little nervous, but I just need to hit my spots.”
If she runs into trouble, Johnson will be there to try and bail her out as that happened against Duluth Marshall during the section tournament. That came on the same day Johnson competed in the subsection track and field meet.
“She’s a heck of an athlete, she really is,” Emanuel said of Johnson. “She’s a strong hitter and good defensively. And she’s my first off the bench pitching.”
Johnson actually tripled up this spring, playing Junior Olympic volleyball on weekends.
“It’s been very busy. It’s complicated,” she acknowledged.
That busy schedule may have contributed to her missing out on the state track meet despite ranking second locally in the shot put and third in the discus.
“I was really hoping to qualify for track, I really wanted to make it there,” Johnson said. “But my body wasn’t ready, it needed more rest. I feel that’s a factor why I didn’t make it to state.”
Well, she actually did, just in a different sport.
Tondryk is Cloquet’s linchpin
Ron Tondryk was an assistant coach the first time Cloquet qualified for the state tournament in 2002, then was head coach when the Lumberjacks went back 10 years later.
He’s still the dugout boss now as Cloquet heads to its third state tournament.
That means he may be the only one who is able to lend state tournament advice to girls who have never experienced the scene at Caswell Park.
“I just tell them to enjoy the journey and go down there and play good ball,” Tondryk said Wednesday during the team bus ride to North Mankato.
That’s been the norm this season for the fourth-seeded Lumberjacks (19-4), who meet No. 5 Benilde-St. Margaret’s (16-8) in a Class AAA quarterfinal at 11 a.m. Thursday.
Cloquet has been hitting well most of the season, averaging 7.7 runs a game, while junior Lucy Sinkkonen has developed into a quality starting pitcher.
“The girls are confident,” Tondryk said. “We feel we can match up against them and as long as we pitch well, play good defense and get our timely hitting, we’ll be fine.”
The Lumberjacks survived a tense Section 7AAA final against Chisago Lakes, getting no-hit in the first of two championship games and then having three players, all representing game-winning runs, thrown out at home in the second game before having the fourth player called safe.
“We’re resilient, we keep battling for seven innings and keep coming back,” Tondryk said. “Yeah our pitching is good, we have good hitting, we play pretty good defense and our team speed is fast, but what it comes down to is these kids wanting it bad. They have good, strong hearts and that’s where our strength is at.”
Plachta returns to state
Roger Plachta has been a staple at softball state tournaments ever since his Esko team finished second in 1996 and then won the 1998 Class A title.
Then during his 18 seasons as Wisconsin-Superior coach, Plachta frequented Caswell Park during the state tournament to scout players to bring to the Division III school.
But after getting fired by UWS and having numerous health complications, Plachta was out of softball for the first time in decades.
“I was just lying around (in March) and I told (former Cloquet baseball coach and radio personality) Steve Jezierski that I wished I had something to do,” Plachta recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll check on a few things and let you know.’ He ran into (South Ridge athletic director) Tony DeLeon in a Kwik Trip and he was looking for a coach. That’s how I ended up here.”
You could say it’s been a marriage made in Kwik Trip heaven.
Plachta guided South Ridge (18-5) to its first section title in any girls sport and a berth opposite top-seeded New York Mills (23-2) in a Class A quarterfinal at 1 p.m. Thursday.
The Panthers were the surprise of Section 7A, winning three straight 1-0 playoff games — two over section powerhouse Cherry — to head into the state tournament on a roll. Senior pitcher Malania Madill has been the key, tossing 33 consecutive shutout innings.
“Not only did she pitch good against those teams (in the playoffs), she pitched well against (Class AA opponents) Moose Lake and Proctor (in the regular season),” Plachta said. “I knew if she pitched like that we’d have a chance. I think we’ll have a chance down there if she can pitch that well.”
Plachta isn’t concerned about having to face the top-seeded Eagles right off the bat.
“You got to beat the best to be the best,” he said. “You have to face them sooner or later, so you might as well do it now.”
The 63-year-old Plachta is uncertain how much longer he’ll coach. He had triple-bypass heart surgery and a kidney removed while still at UWS, then had carotid artery surgery after the firing. He suffers from diabetes ailments as well.
“I’ve really slowed down so I’m not sure yet,” he said about returning.