ESCANABA - The first tournament game is always the key matchup, but that is particularly true Saturday for the Escanaba High School softball team.
The Eskymos face Petoskey at noon in their Division 2 opener at Sault Ste. Marie in a pairing of the top two teams in the field. Sault Ste. Marie (18-12-2) meets Cheboygan (22-12) in the opener at 10, with the winners meeting at 2 p.m. for the title.
Esky (21-14) split with Petoskey (22-12) this season, beat Cheboygan 8-2 and 11-0 and whipped Sault 17-1. Petoskey has won 11 straight games, since a 12-2 loss to Escanaba.
With perhaps the toughest opponent up first, Escanaba manager John LaMarch is not worried about his team looking ahead to perhaps getting its first district title since 2005.
"We've played and beaten everyone in our district and also lost to Petoskey," said LaMarch. "We have the talent. We still need to play good, you still have to execute."
He has not addressed the district title drought, although he did not deny it is part of his thought process. "You want to look forward and believe you can do it. It is a matter of who shows up on Saturday," he said.
Petoskey's No. 1 pitcher, Annie Hansen, beat the Eskymos 5-3 in the Escanaba Challenge. However, LaMarch took starting pitcher Codi Jenshak out with a 3-2 lead after four innings of the tourney opener. Jenshak allowed three hits and both runs were unearned.
"To me, I feel confident that our pitcher (Jenshak) can hold them. She has done it twice," LaMarch said.
Jenshak, a junior, is not a flame-thrower but has excellent location and control. She is 10-9 against the toughest teams and has a 1.42 ERA. She has only 20 walks in 118 innings and has struck out 60.
"She has a knack that she moves the ball around, in and out, up and down," said LaMarch. "They don't always get great swings on her. She can be probably very frustrating to go against. We will go with her as long as we can. She gives us our best chance."
Senior Kayli VanEffen backs up Jenshak, with junior southpaw Makayla Schuster also available.
The Eskymos have been hitting well most of the season, with a team .286 batting average. LaMarch said Jenshak is having "a monster season."
Jenshak is hitting .392 with three home runs, 24 RBIs and a .548 on-base mark in the No. 3 spot. Leadoff batter Syd Gafner has a 408 on-base mark and is hitting .284, with 14 walks and three triples.
Braedyn Bosilovatz is at .385 and Mallory Zimmerman is hitting .275 in addition to playing solid shortstop. "If Mal has a good weekend, we should do well," said LaMarch.
Sophomore Jen Koish has been a big surprise, hitting .292 with a .404 on-base mark and is second with 19 RBIs and only 11 strikeouts in 99 at-bats.
"Quite a few kids are swinging great bats," said LaMarch. "It is just a matter of piecing a few of them together."
The defense has also been strong, with LaMarch citing versatile junior Bre Belanger. "She is the unsung hero for me on our defense. Wherever we put her, she gets it," he said. "She is a very instinctive player. She catches everything."
LaMarch figures Esky and Petoskey are "very comparable. I like to think the advantage goes to Escanaba. I think we have a little better hitting team to be honest with you."
LaMarch knows the importance of coming out fast and strong in the opener and not looking ahead. He recalls the 2010 district opener when Esky beat Cheboygan on a seventh inning hit and how the emotions ran high.
Meanwhile, Sault upset Petoskey and then stunned Escanaba 1-0 "on a fluke infield single. That is the great thing about our game. You just never know," he said.