Escanaba Delivers Memorable D2 Encore

June 15, 2019

By Perry A. Farrell
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Two rarities happened in the first inning of the MHSAA Division 2 softball championship game Saturday at Michigan State’s Secchia Stadium.

The first was Escanaba all-state pitcher Gabi Salo allowed a walk against Stevensville Lakeshore. The second was Salo gave up a run.

Salo entered the championship game with a 25-2 record, 0.24 earned run average and 337 strikeouts and just 21 walks.

If that’s not enough, she had given up only six earned runs all year.

She gave up three runs – two earned – in the championship game, but contained the Lancers enough to secure a 7-3 victory that clinched the Eskymos’ second straight Division 2 title.

“I thought I had my best stuff today,’’ said the junior pitcher. “I thought I went out strong.

“This means so much. Our school went without a state title from 1981 until last year. For us to bring home another one, I don’t have words. This one feels even better than last year.’’

The Lancers surprisingly struck early when Salo surrendered a two-out walk and Meghan Younger drove her home on a double just out of the reach of the centerfielder. It was just the seventh earned run Salo had given up this season.

She finished Saturday with 11 strikeouts while allowing seven hits. Escanaba finished the spring 34-3, while Lakeshore ended 33-11.

Salo helped her own cause in the second inning with a game-tying sacrifice fly, scoring Lexi Chaillier, who had walked, stolen second base and was sacrificed to third.

Escanaba took advantage of two walks and a bounce out to first by Chaillier to take a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the second inning.

Younger was able to solve Salo with two singles and a double, but her teammates mostly were stifled until the sixth.

Meanwhile, Escanaba loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth inning with one out on a walk and singles by Heather Bergstrom and Carsyn Segorski. Chaillier popped out, but Nicole Kamin and the Eskymos took advantage of a fly ball dropping out of an outfielder’s mitt that allowed three runs to score and gave the reigning champ a 5-1 lead.

A four-run cushion with three innings left was all Salo needed.

Lakeshore put together a threat in the top of the sixth inning on a single by Younger and fielder’s choice and error by Salo.

Shelby Grau singled, but rightfielder Chaillier threw out a Lakeshore runner at home to negate a potential run. However, Anna Chellman came through with a two-run single to left field to make it 5-3. Salo got out of trouble with a strikeout with two runners on.

“Originally, I was going to throw it to first because I’ve gotten a few girls out at first on those kinds of hits,’’ said Chaillier. “I saw the girl running from third, and I knew I had to go home with it.’’

Said winning coach Gary Salo: “(Chaillier) better be on some all-state teams. I’m going to be upset if she isn’t. She does everything for us. That was a great throw.”

Escanaba sealed the win in the bottom of the sixth inning when a Lakeshore wild pitch allowed two runs to score.

“All week we just kept saying we’re three wins away from going to Wienerlicious (restaurant in Mackinaw City) … (then) we’re two wins away,” Gary Salo said. “We’re going to go back home and celebrate there. We haven’t been home all week.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba's Georgia Lehto connects with a pitch during Saturday's Division 2 Final. (Middle) The Eskymos' Gabi Salo fires toward the plate. 

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

May 24, 2023

Kenna Bommarito remembers how many people were in East Lansing a year ago to support her and her Algonac softball teammates at the Division 3 Semifinals.

Bay & ThumbSo, she has an idea of how many people from the town would show up if both the softball and baseball teams were there this time around.

“I think everyone would be,” the junior pitcher said.

There’s a decent possibility that Bommarito’s theory could be tested. The Muskrats softball team is ranked No. 2 in Division 3, and Tuesday night clinched the first Blue Water Area Conference title in program history.

That came one night after the baseball team – ranked No. 1 in Division 3 – also won its first BWAC title. The BWAC was created in 2002, and Algonac was an original member.

“It’s amazing – this town loves it,” said senior baseball player Tyler Schultz. “We’ve got a small community, and everybody is tagging along. I remember last year, a couple of our final postseason games, that was the most people I’ve ever seen at a game. All of the sports here are starting to build up. We have athletes all around the school. I think as time goes on, I think each sport will get better and better.”

Bommarito’s imagined scenario nearly played out a year ago, as both teams made their deepest postseason run.

While the softball team was making its historic run to the Semifinal, the baseball team was making one of its own, advancing to the Quarterfinal for the first time in program history.

Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in.The baseball team’s movement toward this started with the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when the Muskrats won back-to-back District titles.

“We had a couple DI (college) players, and when you have those players come through, it generates excitement through the youth,” said Algonac baseball coach Scott Thaler, who took over the program in 2017. “It’s been a trickle-down effect from that initial first two years. That really set the bar. We’ve had some really good baseball players come through, and I have a great staff.”

Thaler had stressed back then that he wanted to build a program at Algonac and not have it be a flash in the pan. That certainly looks like it’s happening, and not just because his Muskrats are winning and sitting atop the state rankings.

Algonac – which has fewer than 500 students in the entire school – has junior varsity and freshman baseball teams. Thaler also said there are 25 eighth graders coming into the program next year.

“I think that when I was smaller in little league, we didn’t really have that where we went out on the field with the varsity players,” said junior pitcher Josh Kasner. “Now, that’s gotten a lot better. A lot of the smaller kids we see around town, they know who we are and about (the program).”

Of course, talent wasn’t enough to get there. Thaler needed to instill belief in his team in order to help the younger generation see what was possible.

“I was a (football assistant) coach under Scott Barnhart, and one of the things we preached to the kids back then is ‘To believe in the things you haven’t seen before,’” Thaler said. “That’s the mantra we brought to them last year, ‘Why not us?’ Just because it hasn’t happened before here doesn’t mean you can’t believe in that. We had to get them to believe.”

The Quarterfinal run provided proof beyond the belief for the Muskrats, and then the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association added to it all, naming Algonac the preseason No. 1 team in Division 3.

Luckily for Thaler, his team took it in stride.

The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield.“I mean, it was a great feeling, but part of me had some doubts,” Schultz said “We’ve got some younger kids on the team, and I thought that maybe they might look at that and might get complacent, but me and some of the other seniors have done a good job of keeping all of these guys looking forward. We’ve still got one goal, and that’s to finish (with a Finals title).”

While the softball team didn’t enter the season with a No. 1 ranking, the expectations were certainly there, as was a new target on its back.

But bigger than both was motivation following a walk-off loss to Millington in the Semifinal.

“I think it just shows us that in those big games with those types of teams, you can never say never,” said first-year softball coach Natalie Heim, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “You really have to bear down. That Millington team that beat us, they fought hard. But I definitely think it fuels us more to get back.”

The softball program’s rise may have seemed more sudden to those on the outside, but senior Ella Stephenson said it had been bubbling for a while.

“My sophomore year, we had some talent for sure,” she said. “We had a really good season, but not as good as junior and senior year. The class above me was really talented. But they kind of turned the program around in my eighth-grade year, and it kind of kept building from there.”

During Stephenson’s sophomore season, the Muskrats lost a tough District game against Richmond, which went on to win the Division 3 Finals title. Not only are the Blue Devils a common early postseason opponent for the Muskrats, they’re also a conference rival. As is Almont. And Croswell-Lexington. And … It’s a brutal conference.

The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo.So, much like the baseball team, even during the softball team’s historic 2022 season, winning the conference this spring proved to be tougher than making a deep postseason run.

That made Tuesday night’s sweep of North Branch to clinch the BWAC that much sweeter.

“Honestly, it’s a rush of just happiness,” Bommarito said. “We’re all so excited and just can’t believe we did it. We just played game-by-game today, and really took it one pitch, one out at a time.”

Not only has the BWAC prepared the Muskrats for the possibility of another deep postseason run, it helped keep them focused throughout the season.

“I think a lot of teams don’t have that luxury of facing the best competition during the season,” Heim said. “I think it keeps (the Muskrats) not looking too far ahead. We try to have that approach of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It helps with having goals that are a little tougher to achieve. Winning our league, it’s tough. It’s not an easy feat. Especially after last year’s success, it would have been easy to look ahead.”

Now, with league titles secured, both teams can focus on their ultimate goals and the postseason that is directly in front of them.

All with the hope that their similarities – on top of the league titles, both teams are 29-2 as of Wednesday, and both have a University of Michigan-bound player (Kasner and Stephenson) – continue through the third weekend of June with matching trips to East Lansing.

“That’d be unreal. That would be so cool,” Stephenson said. “We all have really good friendships on the baseball and softball teams. Our records are identical. We both won our conference. It’s just really cool. I’m really happy for their success, and ours, too.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Algonac pitcher Kenna Bommarito makes her move toward the plate during last season’s Division 3 Semifinal against Millington. (2) Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in. (3) The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield. (4) The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo. (Baseball photos and softball team photo courtesy of the Algonac athletic department.)