By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – Ever since softball became part of the Escanaba High School athletic program in 1997, it has been among the best and most consistent offerings in the state.
Last year the Eskymos confirmed their elite prep status by winning the MHSAA Division 2 title, and they again are in the thick of this year's championship picture. Escanaba belted South Haven 5-0 in last season’s Final, after clipping Eaton Rapids 2-0 in the Semifinal two days before.
The Eskymos won their final 13 games last year to finish 31-3. Gabi Salo, then a sophomore, fanned 11 of the title game's opening 13 batters and allowed three hits while punching out 13 batters total. Salo and Escanaba yielded just two runs over seven postseason games. The six EHS seniors on that team compiled a 131-18 record during their four seasons.
Escanaba previously was Division 1 runner-up in 2003 and lost in Division 2 Semifinals in 2016 and 2017.
Salo has helped the Eskymos to a 15-1 record in this weather-marred spring, and Escanaba was ranked No. 1 in the state before losing to Kent State recruit Gabbie Sherman and Division 3 top-rated Millington 3-0 on Friday in Escanaba. Sherman, another of the state's prime pitchers, also throttled Escanaba 2-1 last year.
The Eskymos rebounded from Friday's loss in grand style on a frigid Saturday, whipping Marshfield, Wis., 9-5 and then clipping arch-rival Gladstone 7-0 behind a perfect game by Salo, who whiffed 14 batters.
Gladstone manager John Nevala said "if her control is good and she can get the corner called, she can be called unhittable. We had been hitting the ball pretty good until we faced Gabi."
Salo demonstrated better location and control against Gladstone than the previous night's rare loss. "She is in a class of her own," said Nevala. "She has to be one of the top pitchers in the state. She had very good movement.
"She has excellent speed (around 64-65 mph) and an excellent changeup. She changes speeds so well. She probably has three different speeds. You can't really dig in on one location at the plate."
This season Salo is 10-1 with two saves and sports a dominating 0.02 ERA. She has struck out 136 batters in 69 2/3 innings, but has also issued eight walks and hit four batters during wicked spring conditions the opening month. (NOTE: After a pair of no-hitters Monday and Tuesday against Marquette and Gladstone, respectively, Salo is 12-1 with 161 strikeouts in just under 84 innings pitched.)
A University of Wisconsin recruit since last spring, Salo felt she threw well against Millington and Gladstone, but indicated she was "pretty tight" in the freezing opener. She said her curveball and changeup worked better against Gladstone.
She didn't pay attention to keeping Gladstone off the bases. "I try not to think about those things. I feel like it is a jinx," she said.
Salo worked hard last year to develop her back-breaking change-up and now terms it her favorite pitch. "It is spot-on," she said. "It throws the hitters off their game. I go out, focus and attack the hitter. I like getting swinging strikes." She is not afraid to use her change on a 3-2 count.
She fires her fastball down-and-in or inside-and-high and loves to get her pitches inside on the batter's fists.
The Escanaba first-year manager is her father, Gary, who was the pitching coach for the Eskymos last year under Jamie Segorski, who resigned as coach just as practice began this spring. Gary and Gabi have been together for several years on different summer travel teams.
He signals the pitches from his dugout perch, using input from his daughter and junior catcher and Ferris State commit Dakota Cloutier, who also handled that spot last season.
Senior right fielder Lexi Chaillier, a three-sport, four-year standout, leads the Eskymos with a .481 batting average and five home runs. Gabi Salo leads with 18 RBI and hits .378, while sophomore first baseman-pitcher Nicole Kamin is hitting .477 with 14 runs driven in. Cloutier is hitting .356 with 12 RBI.
Expect that quartet to lead the way this weekend when the Eskymos play in a highly-competitive 20-team invitational tournament in Ann Arbor. The strong field is what the Eskymos search for in compiling a schedule, with trips into Wisconsin and lower Michigan to find high-quality opponents.
Referring to other top hurlers, along with Millington's circle ace, Gary Salo said "we want to go up against elite pitching if we want to go to the next level." And now, with a state title, he said the Eskymos know "we are going to get everybody's best game."
After Friday's loss and the twin wins Saturday, the Escanaba skipper said "our kids are very resilient. We licked our wounds."
Much of the high school program's success is credit to a tremendous Little League program. Gabi Salo began pitching at age 10 when her youth coach asked if anyone wanted to throw. For many years she has received extensive coaching from Pat Brower in Ann Arbor. "He has developed Gabi into the pitcher she is," said her dad. "It is well worth driving six-and-a-half hours each way."
Gabi Salo began her travel ball experience with the Escanaba Heartbreakers at age 10, then joined downstate teams, playing with Wixom Finesse the past three summers. The opportunity to play against quality travel teams in addition to high school has been crucial to her development.
Travel ball has taken the Salos to Atlanta, Huntington Beach, Calif. and Boulder, Colo. in addition to such destinations as the Grand Canyon. Gary Salo drives the family RV everywhere, with just father-daughter on most jaunts.
"Softball has given us a summer-long vacation," said Gary Salo.
"Definitely travel ball has helped me see parts of the country I would never get to see," said Gabi, who plans to enter the nursing field at UW and works at Christian Park Nursing in Escanaba. She also bowled for EHS and participates in dance, saying she would skip a softball game but would not skip a dance recital.
"The travel ball and high school competition is pretty equal," she said. "We play the best competition there is in the country."
Escanaba, which also excels in the classroom (a state-best 3.83 GPA), knows a title repeat will be difficult to achieve because teams like Richmond, Muskegon Oakridge, Eaton Rapids, Spring Lake, Detroit Country Day, Freeland and Stevensville Lakeshore are very dangerous.
"It is not a seven-game series. They are seven-inning games," Gary Salo said of the postseason dynamics.
"A lot of teams are playing really, really well," he said. "Any team has the opportunity to get lucky like we did."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gabi Salo makes her move toward the plate during last weekend’s Escanaba Invitational. (Middle) A championship banner at the Eskymos’ home field celebrates last season’s Division 2 championship. (Below) Gary Salo has taken over the varsity this spring. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
The MHSAA and Holly school communities are grieving this week after the sudden loss of Tony Coggins, a shining light in his educational community and an enthusiastic supporter of school sports as a public address announcer for several of our largest championship events.
But while that cheerful tone has been quieted, it surely will not be forgotten by the many fortunate to enjoy an event in the presence of that voice and the joyfulness he brought into every arena, press box and classroom.
Coggins, 51, died Saturday. He is survived by his wife Kristy and children Emma and Bradlee, among several family and friends from his local and greater sports communities.
His career as a PA announcer began during his freshman year of high school in 1985, when his father Dale Coggins – Flushing’s athletic director at the time – couldn’t find anyone else to announce middle school football games. That was 39 years ago, and this fall Tony Coggins was in his 24th announcing at Holly, where he taught and served as an administrator in addition to his role as “Voice of the Holly Bronchos” for football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, competitive cheer and swimming & diving over the years.
Coggins has been a mainstay among MHSAA Finals PA announcers over the last decade in football, basketball, softball and most recently volleyball. He lent his voice to college sports at University of Michigan as well. “Tony was a huge part of our Finals events. It’s hard to imagine it being the same without him,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said.
As part of the run-up to the MHSAA public address announcers clinic in 2018, Coggins said this about what drew him to the microphone:
“I have zero athletic ability whatsoever, which is interesting because my father was an all-state running back. But I enjoy being involved, and I've always been the one for history and statistics and knowing what's going on,” Coggins said. “This is a way for me to be involved. It's a way for me to use a talent I've been given; public speaking has always come pretty naturally for me.
“So I worked at my craft to get better. I got better from watching the people around me, from studying the people I like, and the people – if I saw someone I didn’t care for – I'd make a note and say to myself, ‘Don't do that.’ I take feedback from people very personally, and I mean that in a good way. If somebody takes the time to come up and say, ‘You did this well; I think you should change this,’ that means they care about the program also. We all have the same goal in mind, and that's to make the experience good for the high school student and the parents, the fans, that come there.”
Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at St. John Vianney, 2415 Bagley Street in Flint. There will be visitation from 2-8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, at the Swartz Funeral Home, 1225 West Hill Road, and at the church from 10 a.m. Saturday until the time of the Mass.
The Holly volleyball team played for something bigger tonight
Beloved PA announcer Anthony Coggins died on Friday night from a heart attack
— Brandon Green🍀 (@BGreenReports) October 24, 2023