Esky softball repeats as state champs

Austin Hemmingson | Daily Press At right, the Escanaba softball team hoists its Division 2 state championship trophy after beating Stevensville Lakeshore 7-3 in Saturday’s title game at Michigan State University.

EAST LANSING — Not all champions are created equal. Some are dominant, some are underdog stories and some just find a way to win.

The Escanaba softball team probably falls in that last category, although the case can be made it belongs in the other two categories as well. The Eskymos wrapped up back-to-back Division 2 state titles with a 7-3 win over Stevensville Lakeshore at Michigan State University Saturday, but it wasn’t always easy.

Unlike last year’s state championship team — which rolled through the playoffs with relative ease — this group had to scratch and claw its way for almost everything.

After getting through the district without much trouble, Esky had to outlast Muskegon Oakridge 1-0 in nine innings in the regional final, survive with two runs in the sixth to take down Freeland 2-0 in the quarterfinal, and then get a late two-run home run from Nicole Kamin to rally past North Branch in the semis before capturing another state title.

“It’s incredible. I don’t think a lot of people thought that we could do it just because we were losing our entire infield and only had three starters left,” senior right fielder Lexi Chaillier said.

“I think that we proved to ourselves throughout the whole season that we could do this, and we did it.”

First-year head coach Gary Salo didn’t want to talk about defending a state title at the beginning of the season, but kept a quiet confidence about the program.

“People thought (we couldn’t win because) you lost six seniors who did a lot last year,” Salo said. “This program is built rock solid from 8U all the way up. We’re a tiny little program from up north that didn’t even cut anybody. To win a state title and not even have to cut a kid the next year is just awesome.”

He also credits former coach Jamie Segorski for the success the Eskymos have had.

“Jamie Segorski has built a rock solid program,” he said. “We asked six kids on this team to step in and play at a high school level. We have a great jayvee program; I know those kids are playing fast pitch now. They’re seeing what they need to see. You can’t come into this place and not play your best game, or close to your best game. And those kids just did it — hats off to all of them.”

Chaillier was the senior leader of the bunch, knowing she had to take on a leadership role. Heather Bergstrom and Georgia Lehto also returned as seniors.

“I knew that I was going to have step up and be a leader just because we have a very young team,” Chaillier said. “I just think that our softball program is really one that can’t be beat. Whether we win or lose games, we have such a good support system between our fans and our coaches. I’d just like to say thank you to everyone and to all of my past coaches in all of my sports who have supported me throughout my high school career.”

Salo also knew her importance.

“Last year, we replaced six starters. Lexi’s a kind of a kid that when we say we’re replacing three next year, we’re back to the drawing board. We’re replacing six again because she’s that good,” he said. “She is electric with the bat, the glove, the arm — she gets it.”

Asked if there was a moment he felt his team was capable of repeating, Salo immediately referenced Kamin’s homer against North Branch.

“Nicole Kamin’s home run — I realized it right then and there,” he said. “We got a little mad over what happened at second base and the whole town of Escanaba — even the ones who didn’t see the call — are telling us it’s crystal clear in their head. That was the moment right there that kind of energized this whole entire softball program.”

Kamin agreed.

“It was a good moment,” she said. “I feel like it really made us realize that we can do this. After that game we were just thinking, ‘okay, we can do this. Let’s just go out there and get another dub.”

The Eskymos — who finished 34-3 — were undoubtedly led by junior ace pitcher Gabi Salo. Salo won the 2019 Total Softball Michigan High School Softball Player of the Year Award after Saturday’s championship game. She was more than spectacular, finishing the year with 351 strikeouts and a 0.26 ERA.

“We overcome adversity so good. I’m so incredibly proud of this team,” she said. “Our coaches always told us that nobody can take that title away from us. Every time we take the field we’re the defending state champions. We were ranked No. 1 the whole year and that puts a lot of pressure on you, but I feel like this team took that pressure and capitalized on it, and came back and won another title. We’re still the champions until anything that happens next year.”