ESCANABA - The Escanaba Eskymos softball team doesn't shy away from raising the bar.
After appearing in consecutive state quarterfinals in 2012 and 2013, and returning multiple players from those two runs, the Eskymos feel this is their year.
"Winning the state tournament, since Escanaba has never done it, would be a huge accomplishment for our school. We haven't won a state championship in forever, in any sport," said senior left fielder Syd Gafner.
Keith Shelton |?Daily Press
Escanaba’s Sam Connor flips the ball to catcher
Rebecca Piron during practice, Tuesday at Escanaba High School.
Keith Shelton | Daily Press
Escanaba’s Syd Gafner runs the “base paths” during practice, Tuesday afternoon at Escanaba High School.
Senior centerfielder Ashley Cook adds "I think we're more determined this year because it's our senior years and we want to go really far." and senior Jennifer Koish notes "We're really determined to go places this year. We've been putting in three hours of work every day."
All three of the senior leaders are three-year starters for the Eskymos.
The Eskymos are an experienced group this season with five seniors, six juniors and four sophomores. The vast majority of the team has played on at least one of the two state quarterfinal teams and that has manager John LaMarch cautiously optimistic about the team's prospects.
April 18-19 - Spring Swing Tournament @ Superior Dome; April 22 - @ Negaunee (DH); April 25 - Alpena (DH); April 26 - @ Ashwaubenon, Wis.; April 29 - @ Kingsford (DH).
May 1 - Rapid River (DH); May 3 - @ Poynette Jamboree; May 6 - Kingsford (DH); May 9 - @ Cheboygan; May 10 - @ Petoskey, May 12 - @ Marquette (DH); May 13 - Gladstone (DH); May 16 - Cheboygan; May 17 - Escanaba Challenge; May 19 - Peshtigo, Wis. (DH); May 20 - @ Gladstone (DH); May 22 - Marquette (DH).
"We have a lot of returning experience and the kids have had a chance to play a lot of games toward the end of last season, and a lot of summer ball, so yeah, we do have a lot of experience," he said. "There's a lot of multi-sport athletes so they're used to competition. They're strong."
Junior ace pitcher Jaymie Frappier, already among the state's top twirlers on the mound, returns to lead the Eskymos.
"Jaymie has had a nice start to her career already," said LaMarch. "She's worked extremely hard in the offseason to get where she is. I'm sure she has great expectations, as we all do, but you still have to do it on the ball field."
The Eskymos lost a once-in-a-generation type of player when Codi Jenshak graduated last season. She is currently a freshman at St. Norbert. But the Eskymos feel Frappier can help fill the leadership void.
"Defensively, Jaymie I think will step up and be like Codi, because she's a really good pitcher," said Cook.
As far as batting, LaMarch notes that Jenshak is likely irreplaceable, and a group effort will be needed to maintain the offense she brought to the table last season.
"It's hard to replace a kid that has nine school records," LaMarch said of Jenshak. "I tell whoever will listen that St. Norbert doesn't know what they got yet. Codi batted .500 during the season and turned it up in the playoffs, that just doesn't happen.
"We're hoping everybody pulls a little bit and hopefully we can overcome her loss."
The Eskymos all take some batting practice against Frappier in preparation for some of the fireballer pitchers they'll face this season, but LaMarch noted he has to balance it out.
"We throw Jaymie against all of them and it's good to see that, although we pick our moments a little bit because the game of softball is all about confidence. They do get a chance to hit off her though," he said.
Junior Rebecca Piron will step into the catcher's role this season, and brings the experience of playing in the Junior League World Series two seasons ago.
"Rebecca is very aggressive. She can really throw and she has everything a coach would want a catcher to be," said LaMarch. "She's vocal, she's a leader, she's tough and she wants it bad. We're excited to see where Rebecca goes this year."
Sophomore Callie Heller, another key contributor on the 2012 World Series team, returns at shortstop for the Eskymos.
"Callie is only a sophomore but she has a lot of experience and was a full-time starter at shortstop last year and one of our pitchers," said LaMarch. "We're excited about where she's at. Hopefully there's some growth there, the potential is enormous."
Additional returnees include seniors Shelby Gregoire and Brittany Bruce and junior Michelle LaFave.
the remainder of the team is a solid, athletic group of players who achieved much in Little League and bring experience and a competitive drive. They include juniors Sam Connor, Jess Gill and Alyssa Polequin and sophomores Anna Burch, J.J. Laviolette and Mackenzie Leisner. Gabby Salo will student manage the team.
LaMarch is excited about his team, but balances his optimism with caution. During a practice session Tuesday, he reminded his team that they have a target on their backs. Although a rematch with Saginaw Swan Valley in the quarterfinal would be nice, LaMarch isn't jumping the gun just yet.
"It's an intriguing thought, but I know there's some teams that are saying, hold on a minute Escanaba," said LaMarch. "We tell them that every day. There's people in our division and district that are saying wait a minute.
"But potentially, Saginaw is rated real high and we like our team too. It would be very intriguing to see them again, because we wouldn't see them prior to the quarterfinal."
The sting of losing to the same team in consecutive quarterfinal games has only strengthened the Eskymos resolve this season, as well as last. The marked improvement from 2012 to 2013 was evidence of that.
"Playing the same team kind of helped. We knew what to expect, it was like revenge," said Gafner. "It just shows how much we improved in one season, and coming into this season, we've improved even more and we're going to show that by pushing past that point."
In the regular season, the Eskymos can expect tough games against Gladstone and Marquette. They are set to open the season Friday at the Spring Swing Tournament at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
"We don't really worry about Gladstone, they're a formidable foe, they're our rival and we work hard to stay with them, but we work hard to beat all the teams they play," said LaMarch. "I think they present a great challenge for us and it's easy to get motivated for that.
"I like to play those tough teams and Gladstone is right there, Marquette is a big school and there's a lot of competition there. We're looking for the teams that are going to challenge us and hopefully prepare the kids for that day where they're really up against it and they can come through."
The senior class has helped raise the standard at Escanaba and now they're passing that standard along to the incoming sophomores.
"I think a lot of the young girls look up to us. They want that same outcome, to get to that level and farther. I think everyone wants that same sense of accomplishment," said Gafner. "Now that we've been there twice, we hope we can get past that point and push ourselves to the states."
Note: In addition to their athletic accomplishments, the team GPA for the Eskymos is 3.65, with every senior on the team being named Academic All-State.