Escanaba Follows Ace to Historic Finish

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

June 16, 2018

EAST LANSING – South Haven managed three hits Saturday, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say Escanaba sophomore Gabi Salo was unhittable in the MHSAA Division 2 softball championship game.

But the University of Wisconsin recruit was pretty close.

Salo threw a second straight shutout at Secchia Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University, striking out 13 and not allowing a walk in Escanaba’s 5-0 win.

“I definitely think she’s the best pitcher that we’ve faced this year,” South Haven coach Wilma Wilson said. “We’ve faced some really good pitchers, but she was just living on the edge with every little thing and painting the corners and working the zone that the umpire was giving her. So no, we have not faced anyone like her this year.”

The MHSAA title was the first in program history for the Eskymos (31-3), who were making their third straight appearance in the Final Four, and first title game appearance since 2003.

“It feels amazing,” Salo said. “The last time Escanaba brought home a state championship was 1981 (in Class A football), and to bring home another one is really cool.”

To clarify: The Eskymos frequently claim MHSAA Finals titles in sports where the peninsulas play in separate divisions. But Saturday’s victory clinched Escanaba’s first championship in a statewide tournament since that 1981 football win – although the softball team long has been considered among the state’s elite regardless of peninsula.

Salo set the tone early Saturday, striking out 11 of the first 13 batters she faced, including the first eight. She did this despite a 25-minute rain delay that began two strikes into the second at-bat of the game.

“We just kept ourselves up and went out there and played like we were playing,” Salo said. “It didn’t bother us.”

Salo, who also shut out Eaton Rapids in the Semifinal on Thursday, finished the season with an earned-run average below 0.40.

“She was absolutely incredible,” Escanaba coach Jamie Segorski said. “It’s hard, you know, because we’ve come to expect it. She does it continuously. The bigger the game the better she pitches, and it’s a credit to all the work she puts in. Nobody works harder; nobody works longer. As a matter of fact, when she leaves here today, she’s going to be playing this weekend in Ohio. She doesn’t take breaks; she just plays.”

Escanaba catcher Dakota Cloutier knew coming into the game that her pitcher was going to be tough to hit – although she comes into most games with that feeling.

“She was on another level today,” Cloutier said. “She was pitching harder and pulling through all her pitches more than she ever has before.”

The game ended with a Salo strikeout, this one on a called strike, and one the umpire took a second to signal.

“When you’re waiting for changeup to float in there like that on that last pitch, I think (the umpire) was even surprised,” Segorski said. “That was a great pitch. It just takes a second to get the call, and we were all waiting and watching, and it was awesome.”

Salo was given all the run support she needed in the first inning, as Madison Griffin drove in Lexi Chaillier with a double.

While South Haven pitcher Hayley Kreiger was strong after that, the Eskymos were able to push across two unearned runs in the fourth inning with two outs, as Nicole Kamin scored on an error and Cloutier drove in Savannah Barron with a double.

Escanaba added two more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning as Heather Bergstrom, Barron and Cloutier hit back-to-back-to-back doubles with two outs.

“It was awesome,” Segorski said. “It’s a relaxed feeling for the hitters when they go up there and we have a nice lead. All they have to do is go up there and square the ball, and they did it. For Heather Bergstrom to come in as a pinch hitter and drive that one to right center was fantastic, and for Savannah Barron to end her high school softball career with a double and drive in an insurance run for us is an amazing feeling for her. It goes all the way through. Just a bunch of amazing kids who did an amazing thing.”

Kreiger finished with nine strikeouts of her own, allowing seven hits, one walk and three earned runs.

“She’s been our workhorse, and she’s the one we’re going to match up against anybody,” Wilson said. “Give them kudos, though; they had some nice line-drive hits and put the ball in play better than we did. “Hayley’s been there for us all year, and even came up with a nice hit there in the last inning to end her high school career. She’s been on the varsity for four years and been just a key player for us for four years. That’s the kind of player you build around, and our senior group in general is just a great group of athletes that work hard and are super gritty.”

South Haven, making its first championship game appearance since 1979, finished 32-9.

Click for the full box score.

VIDEO: Gabi Salo struck out the first eight batters she faced and gets her 13th strikeout here to finish Escanaba's 5-0 win.

PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba players celebrate their first MHSAA softball championship Saturday at Secchia Stadium. (Middle) Eskymos shortstop Taylor Gauthier applies a tag to a South Haven runner.

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.)