Eskymos aim to repeat

Drew Kochanny | Petoskey News-Review The Escanaba softball team celebrates its game-winning run in a 1-0 victory over Muskegon Oakridge in a Division 2 regional championship game Saturday in Petoskey. Esky takes on North Branch at 12:30 p.m. today in the state semifinals at Michigan State University.

EAST LANSING — Winning a state championship is hard. Winning back-to-back state championships is even harder.

That’s what the Escanaba softball team will attempt to do this weekend at Michigan State University, beginning today in a Division 2 semifinal against North Branch at 12:30 p.m. With a win, the Eskymos (32-3) would face the winner of Stevensville Lakeshore and Eaton Rapids in the championship game Saturday at 10 a.m.

Despite being the defending state champ, first-year Esky coach Gary Salo said the goal at the beginning of the season was to simply get back to Michigan State.

“Going into the year, we told the girls the goal would be to get back to Michigan State,” he said. “You can’t ever think any higher than that — that’s a lofty goal as it is. You have to win a district, win a regional and a quarterfinal to get there. We haven’t had an easy game in a long time. Every single team has played one of their best games against us, and that’s the way we want it.”

Indeed, the road hasn’t been easy for the Eskymos, who also won the first year of Great Northern Conference softball. They got through their home district without much trouble, but still ran into teams from Cheboygan and Petoskey that were within striking distance late in the game. The regional final was their biggest scare, as it took nine innings for anybody to get on the board in a matchup with Muskegon Oakridge at Petoskey. Esky finally won the game 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth after each team had a chance to win late in regulation. Then Tuesday at Central Michigan University, Esky again broke a scoreless tie with two runs in the sixth to win a quarterfinal matchup with Freeland and advance back to the state semifinals.

“We’ve been on the road and we’ve been traveling a lot this year,” Salo said Wednesday. “This group is so close and so tight. We try to do a lot of fun things along the way. We’re having a practice in Alma today, and then we’re going on a capitol tour. We do everything together, which I think makes us successful.”

Esky is undoubtedly led by ace pitcher Gabi Salo, who hasn’t allowed a run in her last three outings and came up with big hits in each of the last two games, but there’s something to be said for the depth of a team making back-to-back trips to the state semis. Coach Salo attributes that and his success in his first year of coaching to former coach Jamie Segorski, who led Esky to last year’s state title.

“Jamie Segorski built the talent pool that we’re living off of right now,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of change; we’re very happy with where we’re at. We have the same mentality as last year; that hasn’t changed.”

In terms of preparation, coach Salo says he has a little background on North Branch and Eaton Rapids.

“I lucked out and took a vacation day about two weeks ago, and went down and scouted Eaton Rapids and North Branch. I got a decent amount of notes on each one, and a little bit of video on each to see what we wanted to. When you coach long enough, you get some inside information,” he said.

“But the mentality the girls bring to the field and batter’s box is what wins games. All these individual girls are bringing different talents to the field. How they perform is what’s going to matter. The lineup isn’t going to change. Every team who’s got a lineup card from us the last two weeks knows where we’re going to be. There’s a certain reason girls are in certain spots; we’re probably not as conventional as a lot of teams. Getting that one big play to get that big inning going is what we’re going to need.”

Of the four teams remaining, Esky might be most familiar with Eaton Rapids. The Eskymos took down Eaton Rapids 2-0 in the semis a year ago, but it returns everyone from last year’s team.

“We’re one of four teams that’s left — that just puts a smile on your face. A lot of people will put Escanaba as the favorite, but Eaton Rapids returns everybody from last year. At this point of the year, everyone can beat everyone and North Branch is one of those teams. Obviously, North Branch is very talented,” coach Salo said.

“The game of softball is so much a mental game. Our goal is to be ready the first inning of that first semifinal game. Last year’s team was very successful, and now the girls have got back to where they wanted to get. Now it’s their idenity; it’s their time.”