Delta County is experiencing a softball golden age, with three local teams all playing at a very high level.
Gladstone, Rapid River and Escanaba all enter this weekend as district champions of their respective divisions. Last season, all three advanced to the MHSAA state quarterfinals. Escanaba fell to a powerhouse Saginaw Swan Valley team while Rapid River and Gladstone advanced to the final four in Battle Creek, Gladstone finishing as state runners-up.
The Braves (26-1) have won 11 straight district titles and have made the final four in five consecutive years, winning the state title in 2009. In three of the other four appearances Gladstone has fallen in the state semifinals. However, this looks to be one of the stronger Gladstone teams in recent memory.
Sporting senior dual aces in Christine Sharon and Alison Austin, their pitching isn't worth a worry. Either is capable of holding a lead and shutting down the opposition.
Despite losing a litany of talent after the 2012 season, the Braves have been able to restock once again. There is no better proof of that then watching the performances of players like Sadie Strasser, Mikayla Depuydt, Lexi Hongisto and Jess Beaudry. Returning players' Grace Zimmermann and Jordan Kowalski have been nothing short of outstanding.
Expectations were tempered in the preseason. Even veteran manager Gerry Smith expressed some concern over how his young team would gel and fill in for departed experience. So the fact that Gladstone is practically undefeated is a remarkable feat and a testament to this coaching staff's ability, as well as the mature and determined mindset of the young players on this team. The team's lone loss came in late March in the preseason Spring Swing Tournament at the Superior Dome, to Marquette. Half the team was not present, as they were on spring break. The Braves also swept the four-game season series against their upper division opponents at Escanaba.
The Escanaba Eskymos had a breakthrough last season when they won their first district title since 2005. They followed that up with their first regional title since 2003 when they were state runners-up. Now, the Eskymos have final four aspirations once again. Last Saturday, the team won their second consecutive district title in convincing fashion, unleashing a 14-hit barrage on Cheboygan in an 11-3 victory.
The team has power at the plate in players like Ashley Cook, Michelle LaFave, Callie Heller, Braedyn Bosliovatz and Codi Jenshak. They play their positions well. They also have a formidable 1-2 punch on the mound in Jenshak and Jaymie Frappier. On Saturday, it was Frappier who shut down the Chiefs enabling the Eskymos to reach the regional at Cadillac on Saturday. Two of the teams in Escanaba's regional were there last year as well. It's easy to look ahead and think this Eskymos team should be right back in the state quarterfinal. Manager John LaMarch has been around a while though and it's a safe bet he will have his team in the proper mindset entering Saturday's games.
The Rapid River Rockets (17-14) have never won a state championship, but have made two straight final four appearances, both under manager George Kanyuh. The team also made the state semifinals in 2009.
The Rockets learned a hard lesson in 2011 when they were mercied by Unionville-Sebewaing (USA) in six innings in the state semifinals. In 2012 the Rockets held a 3-0 lead against Dansville in the state semifinal before a couple of uncharacteristic errors led to their downfall. Dansville rallied for a 4-3 victory.
Those two teams included ace pitcher Heather Sanderson, now a Division 1 player at Wisconsin-Green Bay, but that hasn't stopped the Rockets. Neena Brockway has risen to the challenge and surpassed expectations. As the Rockets senior hurler on the mound, she has set the school record for strikeouts in a game, with 19 - against Division 2 Cheboygan no less. She also mowed down 18 batters in a game against Munising earlier this season.
The team may be overlooked by some due to their modest record. However it is very misleading. Rapid River has played only a handful of Division 4 teams this season, loading their schedule with formidable contenders in Divisions 1, 2 and 3. It might be safe to say that no team in Division 4 has played a harder schedule than the Rockets.
The team is young, with multiple freshmen serving as regular contributors but players such as Erika Schwartz, Dominique Pavlat, Aslyn Brockway, Hannah Kanyuh and Lydia Froberg have all had their moments, and have come a long way since the beginning of the season. Veterans such as Averi Kanyuh, Savannah Stenlund and Neena Brockway have been the steadying force holding the team together through rough stretches early in the season.
Manager George Kanyuh stated at the beginning of the season that the team's goal remained the same, despite the large amount of turnover. It's state semifinals or bust, and this year the Rockets hope to make the jump to the title game. But first things first. a tough regional awaits on Saturday
Three local teams, three golden opportunities to repeat what occurred last season - three state quarterfinal appearances.
We may take this for granted now, but fans, players and family should enjoy it while it lasts. A golden age of softball like this, with three area teams all playing at a high level, may never come around again.