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Baseball gods smile on Marshall: After quirky pre-game ritual, Hilltoppers win Section 7AA

Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Duluth Marshall's Brett Benson pitches against Esko during the Section 7AA final Thursday at Wade Stadium.1 / 2
Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Duluth Marshall's Derrick Winn collides with Esko's Carter Northey at third base during the Section 7AA final Thursday at Wade Stadium. Winn was safe, got up and ran to home to score a run.2 / 2

Entering the Section 7AA baseball final against Esko on Thursday at Wade Stadium, Duluth Marshall had scored three runs over its previous three games.

So the Hilltoppers did what any baseball team would do. They gathered outside Marshall athletic director Kevin Snyder's office in the afternoon, turned their hats backwards and shirts inside-out, put their shoes on the wrong feet and lit some incense.

Of course they did.

Snyder led the ceremony, rolling incense, he explained, over the team's bat barrels.

"All the while I was telling the baseball gods that it's OK to let our boys make contact with the ball," said Snyder, a native Hawaiian who explained all this as if it were perfectly normal.

Hey, who's to argue?

The Hilltoppers, needing to win twice to repeat atop the section and return to the state tournament, started with a 4-1 victory, then decimated the Eskomos 23-1.

Marshall (21-4) finished the nightcap with more hits than the Beatles — 24 to be exact. This is a squad that didn't cross home plate a single time vs. Esko in Tuesday's winner's bracket game. What changed?

"I would say there was a lot of pent-up offense and all of a sudden it exploded," Hilltoppers coach Joe Wicklund said.

A year ago, after Marshall edged Aitkin to claim its first section crown, Wicklund received an ice-bucket bath. There was no repeat Thursday, though the coach could have used one as a form of pain prevention for his shoulder. He spent most of the second game emphatically waving runners toward home plate. Marshall batted around in both the second and third innings while scoring 11 runs to build a 12-0 lead. The Hilltoppers then nearly batted around twice in the fourth inning, when the first eight hitters reached safely en route to an 11-run frame.

"We were so wildly relaxed in the second game that it didn't make sense," Wicklund said.

Picking a standout player was as easy as tracing a finger down the lineup. Peter Hansen and Cole Maccoux had four hits apiece, and Maccoux drove in three runs. Derrick Winn and Ben Pedersen combined for four hits, two doubles and six RBIs. In fact, every Marshall starter but one had multiple base hits.

That included junior Tyler Johnson, who went 5-for-5 with a double and five RBIs. Thursday was especially sweet for Johnson. In the first inning of the Hilltoppers' first game last season, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder pitching. So he didn't get to experience the program's state breakthrough.

Johnson played his part this time around.

"This is what I was waiting for all season long, and it feels absolutely wonderful," he said.

Johnson said during the loss to Esko on Tuesday, which Marshall followed with a 2-0 win over Mora to stay alive, the Hilltoppers were pressing against Eskomos ace Brody Kaldahl, trying to do too much. Thursday, the Hilltoppers settled down.

"When one guy started hitting, everybody started hitting," Johnson said. "It was contagious."

In the second inning, Marshall produced five straight run-scoring hits. The streak was interrupted by a walk before Johnson made it six of seven. Things snowballed from there.

It was especially jarring against Esko, which opened the playoffs by routing Rush City 13-1 and then unleashed three consecutive shutouts. This is not an easy club to hang crooked numbers on.

"I've never seen anything like that," Eskomos coach Ben Haugen said. "Everything they hit found holes. It's kind of a helpless feeling.

"And that's not to take anything away from them. They have a heck of a team. You just have to tip your hat to Duluth Marshall."

The explosion was made by possible by the Game 1 win, when Marshall's Brett Benson went the distance on the mound, allowing a run on six hits and one walk.

The Hilltoppers, who finished fourth at state in 2017, will learn their seed and quarterfinal opponent for next week's tournament on Saturday. Regardless of who they play, one thing's for certain.

They're going to need some more incense.

Duluth Marshall 4, Esko 1

At Wade Stadium. WP: Brett Benson 7IP, 1R, 6H, 4K, 1BB. LP: Eric Rish 4.1IP, 4R, 2H, 6BB, 2HBP. DM: Derrick Winn 1x1, 2RBIs; Ben Pedersen 1x3, RBI. E: Branden Matteen 2x2; Ryan Nelson 3B, R; Peyton Koskela 1x2, RBI.

Duluth Marshall 23, Esko 1

At Wade Stadium. WP: Carter Sullivan 5IP, 1R, 3H, 3K, 2BB, 1HBP. DM: Maddux Baggs 2x4, RBI, 3R; Peter Hansen 4x4, RBI, 4R; Derrick Winn 2x3 (2B), 4RBIs, 3R; Ben Pedersen 2x4 (2B), 2RBIs, 3R; Cole Maccoux 4x5 (2B), 3RBIs, 3R; Sullivan 2x3, 2RBIs, 2R; Tyler Johnson 5x5 (2B), 5RBIs, R; Alex Busick 2x5, RBI, 2R.

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