CADILLAC The "Big Cat" came through big time here Saturday.
Escanaba's slugging sophomore third baseman Michelle LaFave launched a drive in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and two strikes that resulted in teammate Codi Jenshak scoring the winning run from second base in a thrilling Division 2 regional softball championship game against Chippewa Hills.
LaFave's clutch drive to shallow right field caromed off the heel of the glove of backpedaling Chip Hills' second baseman Olivia Wolfe, allowing the speedy Jenshak to circle third base and score the game-winning run without a throw. The walk-off 5-4 victory enabled the Esky girls to hoist the regional championship trophy for the second year in a row.
Mike Dunn photo
Escanaba players lift the regional title trophy after defeating Remus Chippewa Hills in Division 2, Saturday at Cadillac.
"I was feeling the pressure, so I walked out of the box to take a breath and relax," acknowledged LaFave, also known as Big Cat. "After Codi stole second, I knew I had a chance to knock her in if I could get a hit. With two strikes, I was just looking to make contact."
LaFave, receiving lots of encouraging growls and loud cheers and chants from the girls in the dugout, poked an outside fastball from Warrior pitcher Cassidy Johnson.
"When I hit the ball I thought it was behind the second baseman but she went back and almost caught it," LaFave said. "I was so happy when it went off the tip of her glove. I turned around and saw Codi going home and knew we would win."
For her part, Jenshak was off and running and didn't see anything.
"I saw Michelle make contact and then I ran as fast as I could," said the smiling Jenshak. "I rounded third and headed home and didn't know if they caught the ball or not until after I crossed the plate. Then it finally sunk in that we won.
"The first thing I did was find Michelle and give her a great big hug. It was so exciting."
The Eskymos (19-7) advanced to the quarterfinals Tuesday at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, where they face a rematch with 2012 state finalist Saginaw Swan Valley. It is an opportunity for vindication for Esky, which lost 12-1 to Swan Valley a year ago.
"We're just thrilled to have another shot at it," said Esky Manager John LaMarch. "We faced two very tough teams here today. It was a lot more dramatic than last year but the girls made the plays in the field and at the plate when we needed it and that was the difference.
"Anytime you have a chance to move on it's really special," he added. "I'm very excited for the girls because I know how hard it is to get there, especially two years in a row."
Getting to the quarterfinals did not come nearly as easily for the Eskymos as it did in 2012, when they breezed past Howard City Tri-County and Cadillac in the regional tourney. This time around, winning the championship required a lot more sweat and effort. The Eskymos outscored host Cadillac 4-0 in Saturday's opener before battling Chippewa Hills for seven innings in the title game.
The Eskymos are still alive, thanks in large part to the final-inning contributions of LaFave, Jenshak and sophomore pitcher Jaymie Frappier.
The teams went into the seventh inning deadlocked at 4-4. The Warriors' Morgan Koziarz greeted Frappier in the top of the frame with a sharp single to center and then Hali Earl sacrificed her to second. A fielder's choice grounder from Charlotte Halm moved Koziarz to third with the potential winning run.
Frappier then pitched around the dangerous Teagan Denslow, who had six hits in her previous seven at-bats that day. That brought up Chip Hills' cleanup hitter Kendall Boone with two on and two out. Boone had already shown what she could do, tying the game earlier with one booming swing of the bat for a three-run homer.
LaMarch thought about walking Boone to load the bases but opted to have Frappier go right after the slugger.
"I was going to walk (Boone) in that situation but changed my mind because I believed Jaymie could get her out," LaMarch said. "Jaymie's just a sophomore but she plays with a lot of confidence and she's such a great competitor out there. I knew she wouldn't beat herself and I also had faith in my catcher (Emily Boguado)."
Frappier coaxed a grounder to Jenshak at second to end the threat. That set the stage for the dramatic walk-off in the bottom of the inning.
Jenshak strode to the plate with two outs and nobody on base but Chip Hills hurler Johnson opted to pitch around the Esky senior, who already had two majestic home runs on her stat line for the day, one against Cadillac in game one and one in the first inning against the Warriors.
That brought LaFave up and she was having a pretty good day also. She had three hits in her previous three plate appearances against the Warriors, including a run scored in the first inning and a perfect squeeze bunt for an RBI in the fifth inning to chase home teammate Rebecca Piron.
With the count at one ball and two strikes on LaFave, LaMarch gave Jenshak the steal sign. That strategy turned out to be pivotal to the outcome of the game.
"I figured they were going to throw a change-up on the next pitch so I told Codi to go," LaMarch said. "I waited at first to give Codi the sign because I didn't want to take the bat out of Michelle's hands. Then it seemed like the right count to steal, so I sent her. Fortunately, it worked out."
LaFave fouled off the next two pitches before connecting with the drive that ended the game.
"That's a tough spot for a sophomore to be but Michelle handled it really well," LaMarch said. "We needed her to put the ball in play with two strikes against her and she did.
"Lady Luck was smiling on us today," he added. "We've had some real tough-luck losses in district and regionals through the years and today things fell our way."
LaMarch commended Chip Hills for a fine effort and expressed sympathy for Wolfe, the Warrior second baseman who was not able to hold onto LaFave's fly to right.
"I'm sure that's a play she makes most of the time," he said. "I feel for her and for their team. I know how it feels to be in their shoes."
Senior first baseman Braedyn Bosilovatz slammed three hits against Chip Hills, including an RBI single as part of a three-run first inning.
LaFave's RBI squeeze bunt in the bottom of the fifth temporarily put Esky on top 4-3. The Warriors tied the game again in the top of the sixth, though, when Wolfe smacked an RBI single.
Jenshak's two home runs Saturday give her six for the season, with three of them coming in the postseason. She launched a two-run jack over the right-centerfield fence against Chip Hills and a mammoth three-run shot to left-center to break open a tight game with Cadillac in the opener.
Left fielder Sydney Gafner was 2-for-2 against the Vikings with a single and a triple and she also knocked in the first run of the game. Centerfielder Ashley Cook and designated player Piron both singled and scored when Jenshak launched her rocket in the fifth inning.
Frappier was dominant against the Vikings, allowing just three hits and striking out 11. In the tense win over Chip Hills, the sophomore struck out two and scattered 10 hits.
Freshman shortstop Callie Heller was dependable as the sunrise in the two regional games, turning several hard grounders into routine outs.