It has been a summer of baseball and softball renaissance for Delta County.
The little county in the Upper Peninsula that could has made its mark as a hotbed for the summer sports, beating the Bay City area, the Metro Detroit area, mid-Michigan and the thumb at the games they've dominated for so long.
In 2014 alone, there are three state champions from Delta County - The Gladstone Braves varsity softball team, the Escanaba Junior Little League softball team and the Gladstone Indians American Legion baseball team. The Escanaba Junior girls came one win away from a World Series appearance for the second time in three years. The county has two state runners-up in the Escanaba Senior and Minor Little League softball teams, and one state semifinalist in the Gladstone Braves varsity baseball team. A handful of additional Little League teams made appearances at the state tournament level.
Photo by Jeff Lange for the Daily Press
The Escanaba Junior League girls pose for a team photo after finishing the U.S.?Central Regional as runners-up, at Firestone Stadium in?Akron?Ohio on Aug. 7. The Junior girls are one of three state champions from?Delta County this summer, putting the small Upper Peninsula community on the map once again.
This doesn't just happen. So what is it? Are Delta County kids just inherently more talented than the rest of the state? Do they work harder? Is it the system/program that's in place? Is it a strong work ethic? Superior motivation? Luck? Is it a combination of those things?
Jamie Segorski would have an idea. He's long coached various Little League and travel teams in Escanaba, and the results speak for themselves. As recently as 2012, he managed an Escanaba Junior League team that made a World Series appearance in Kirkland, Wash.
Such a statement would once inspire awe. How does a little town like Escanaba beat the nation and play on the world stage? But now, it's not unheard of. It might be time to start calling it tradition.
"The way we supplement our Little League teams with our travel programs really helps," Segorski said. "It really helps when the kids play on a higher competition level prior to the Little League tournament. One of the things that allows us to compete with other areas, is we do exactly what they do. We run aggressive travel programs and put a Little League All-Star team in the tourney in the end."
In some ways kids from Delta County are at an advantage logistically, but they also have fewer options available.
"In some respects, different areas will have more travel programs than we do. They'll combine teams out of two or three travel teams," Segorski said. "Our small area helps the kids get into the Little League program. What happens in metro areas is a lot of the best players will play in larger tournaments, they don't play Little League. One of the requirements we have for our travel program, is if a girl is going to play for the Escanaba Heartbreakers, they're required to play Little League. Most of the larger travel teams don't require that, in fact, they almost discourage it."
It helps the Escanaba kids that the coaching staffs between travel ball and Little League are the same all the way up, keeping them on the same page. With a system like that in place, it's understandable how Escanaba teams have risen to compete on the state and national stage.
As recently as 2013, All four divisions of Escanaba Little League softball won their districts. It was the first time that phenomenon has occurred, but it may not be the last.
Things are different in Gladstone, where the Little League requirement for travel teams no longer exists, according to Gerry Smith.
"We had a great feeder program from Little League. I coached Little League for quite a few years and I always had a good rapport with them. It was an easy transition for the kids," Smith said.
"There used to be an emphasis on Little League, but it's dying now with the rise of travel leagues," he continued.
"When I coached Little League, if girls didn't play Little League, they didn't get on the travel team. Now they entice you now to play Little League and play travel ball only.
"In the end, it's going to end up hurting the high school too, because there's a lot of good quality kids out there that may quit because their friends don't make it. Right now, Gladstone is getting some travel teams of their own, so I'm hoping that will put kids back into the LIttle League program."
Mike Gobert says quality coaches in Delta County have made the biggest difference inspiring talented athletes.
"If you don't have quality coaches that instill in the kids the enthusiasm to play the game and do the best they can," Gobert said. "We're fortunate in Escanaba and Gladstone to have quality coaches who can do that."
Gobert formerly helped coach Big League softball, when it was still around in the area and won four state championships with the Gladstone girls. He said that also wouldn't have been possible without the help of the community.
"Twice, we were one game away from the World Series. It takes a lot of dedication and it takes a lot from the parents. You have to have the backing of the community and we're fortunate to have that in both communities as well.
"It has a lot to do with high school coaches. We're fortunate that the high school coaches, both boys and girls, support Little League. With that support, it carries on with the players and the parents, which is huge. Then of course, you get downstate and a lot of the areas down there have had problems with travel ball. So far, we've still been able to put together teams that can go downstate and compete."
Don Lauscher who has coached Little League in the past and recently coached the Gladstone varsity baseball team to the Division 3 Final Four, said coaches in the Delta County area have gone above and beyond to get the most out of athletes.
"I just think through good coaching at the younger levels and the interest always being there in baseball has a lot to do with it," he said. "The high schools, both Escanaba and Gladstone are also a huge factor in kids staying involved in baseball.
"There's always youth baseball camps where the parents and coaches really teach the game well at the younger levels. It's so prominent in this area and the coaches take pride in it. They teach baseball the right way."
Additionally, Lauscher says, there is excellent communication between coaches and consistency from the early ages all the way up to varsity baseball.
"At least in Gladstone, I know the Legion coaches and high school coaches and all the way down into Little League have real good communication. That's a big part," Lauscher said. "It seems like we're all on the same page. All coaches teach a little differently, but for the most part, they all teach the fundamentals. That's why we're so successful.
"Jim Groleau and I talk a lot, Kurt Schwalbach and I talk a lot. It only helps. In order to be successful, you can't be fighting amongst each other for the same purpose, which is the kids. The kids can see that."