Escanaba Finds Home as Softball Champ

June 26, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Relative to the other 15 softball teams playing in the MHSAA Semifinals two weekends ago at Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium, the Escanaba contingent was far from home.

Escanaba not only advanced to play in its first MHSAA championship game since 2003, but returned home to the Upper Peninsula with its first MHSAA Finals title in the sport – and first in any sport with a unified tournament (both peninsulas together) since the football team won Class A in 1981.

The Eskymos gave up two runs total over six postseason games, shutting out Eaton Rapids 2-0 in a Semifinal and South Haven 5-0 in the Division 2 championship game to earn the honor as the final MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for 2017-18.

“It had been so long since we’d had a group down here, I think it was kinda nerve-wracking for them to be down on that field,” said Escanaba coach Jamie Segorski of the 2016 team, the first to return to the Semifinals since that 2003 Division 1 runner-up. “The last couple of years we’ve been fortunate enough to get down there, develop a comfort level, and we’ve come up with a nice schedule that’s convenient and comfortable and helped the girls stay with their norm.

“We expect to make it down there. Will we make it every year? Absolutely not. The competition is fierce. But in their minds, they know they can do it.”

Escanaba finished the spring 31-3, its only losses to eventual Division 3 runner-up Millington, Division 3 semifinalist Clinton and Rice Lake of Wisconsin. All three defeats were by just a run.

The Eskymos, as noted, also had advanced to the 2016 and 2017 Division 2 Semifinals, and they entered this playoffs ranked No. 3 by the state coaches association. So opening with District wins of 4-0 over Cheboygan and 11-1 over Petoskey wasn’t shocking. But a 10-0 shutout of No. 8 Muskegon Oakridge followed by a 12-0 shutout of Remus Chippewa Hills in the Regional certainly grabbed some attention.

Escanaba followed those with a 9-1 Quarterfinal win over annual power Saginaw Swan Valley, before finishing the run with two more shutouts – and a combined postseason scoring edge of 53-2.

Sophomore Gabi Salo without question is one of the best pitchers in the state. She came in in relief during the 2017 Semifinal loss to Richmond, but returned to Secchia to throw 14 shutout innings, giving up a combined seven hits and one walk with 20 strikeouts. She has added four mph to her fastball over the last year, dialing up 66 during the final inning against South Haven. For the season she finished 21-3 with a 0.40 ERA and 287 strikeouts in 156 innings pitched – and she’s already set to play at University of Wisconsin after graduation.

Her nearly unhittable performance was matched by plenty of hitting from her teammates. Junior rightfielder Lexi Chaillier hit .510 with eight home runs and 27 stolen bases from the leadoff spot. Senior second baseman Claire McInerney (.439, 16 SB), senior shortstop Taylor Gauthier (.400, 37 RBI) and senior third baseman Madison Griffin (.430, 6 HR, 46 RBI) filled in the next three places in the lineup, respectively. Eight starters entered the final week of the season batting at least .371, and all nine starters this season had at least one home run. Freshman Nicole Kamin batted fifth both games of Finals weekend and finished the season hitting .526 over 13 games, while going 10-0 with a 1.26 ERA from the pitching circle.

Gauthier and McInerney were three-year starters in the middle of the infield, and the rest of the team’s seniors all came up for the 2016 tournament run and had made all the trips to MSU. The team is well-traveled during the regular season as well, frequently heading downstate and into Wisconsin to find tough competition. The Eskymos find plenty at home too, as Delta County also includes Gladstone and Rapid River – ranked No. 8 in Division 3 and No. 9 in Division 4, respectively, heading into the postseason.

Football is king in Escanaba, and basketball rules the girls sports scene across the Upper Peninsula. But Eskymos softball came home as first-time-in-a-long-time champion, toppling history, clichés about the weather and any remaining misconceptions that teams traveling over the Bridge will sooner or later run into a rocky road.

“It’s fun to watch the girls develop that grit – being from the U.P., they always feel like they’re not looked at like everybody else, like they’re not as good, like how can they be good when they have snow until July,” Segorski said. “I think it really helps determine that higher sense of determination to win games.

“They’ll bask in the glory. They’ll enjoy it. And the younger girls were able to see what happened, see the fun and what we got done, and they’ll come in next year very determined.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2017-18
May: Brownstown Woohaven baseball - Report
April: Detroit Catholic Central boys lacrosse - Report
March: Brighton hockey - Report
February: Marquette girls and boys skiing - Report
Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer - Report
Cadillac boys bowling - Report
November: Ottawa Lake Whiteford football - Report
Beaverton volleyball - Report
Shepherd girls golf - Report

PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba gets ready for its turn at bat after holding South Haven to another scoreless inning during the Division 2 Final. (Middle) Lexi Chaillier lines up a pitch during the championship game.

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.)