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‘The Unthinkable Team’

Esky’s chance at a three-peat ruined by COVID-19

Daily Press file photo Escanaba’s Gabi Salo winds up for a pitch during the 2019 season. Salo, last season’s Michigan High School Player of the Year, was ready to return for her senior season to help lead a loaded Eskymos squad that was aiming to three-peat as Division 2 state champions before the coronavirus pandemic cancelled spring sports.

ESCANABA — It’s no secret the recent coronavirus pandemic has rocked the local sports world. From winter tournaments being cancelled, to spring sports being wiped out altogether, everyone involved in sports across the state and the rest of the country has been directly impacted.

The Escanaba softball team is no exception. In fact, the argument can be made that COVID-19 is the only thing that’s been able to stop the Eskymos in the past three seasons.

Fresh off back-to-back Division 2 state championships, the Eskymos were expected to be even better this season than the last two — at least on paper. Led by senior ace pitcher and University of Wisconsin commit Gabi Salo, the Eskymos were ready to do the unthinkable and go for a three-peat.

Then in the blink of an eye, that opportunity got wiped away.

“It was kind of heartbreaking to hear that your whole season is cancelled,” said Salo, who noted she agreed with the MHSAA’s decision to cancel. “It’s kind of like disbelief. You see that and you’re like, ‘Is that really happening?’ It just doesn’t seem real that I’ll never play high school softball again.”

She also thought they had all the tools to three-peat.

“I think this is one of the best teams we’ve ever had,” she said. “At one of our first couple practices we kind of nicknamed ourselves ‘The Unthinkable Team’, because we could do what was unthinkable in Escanaba history and win three straight state championships… Just to think that team will never take the field is kind of hard.”

The Eskymos would have had five senior starters, led by Salo. Other senior returners included catcher Dakota Cloutier, second baseman Maddy Block, outfielder Jalin Olson and infielder Rylee Kuehl.

“Every year it’s difficult to replace seniors — their leadership, their accomplishments, their talent — it’s hard to replace,” Esky coach and Gabi’s father, Gary Salo said. “Dakota has just been rock solid for us… She’s going on to play college softball at Ferris (State University). Maddy Block at second base was lights out last year. I believe she will be playing collegiately as well. Jalin Olson would be returning as our best outfielder. We had the big debate of, ‘Do we keep her in center field or do we move her to right field,’ based on how we set up our defense and all that. Rylee Kuehl is a senior who patiently waited for her turn to bat. She’s got a very solid bat… You feel bad for all those missed opportunities.

“We were set up really well this year. I told the girls that at this time this year we were ahead compared to other years. That’s a compliment to the previous two groups that set the bar so high for these young ladies.”

A talent like Salo and an opportunity to three-peat doesn’t come around very often.

Esky was going to be attempting to become just the second Division 2 team in the state to three-peat. The only other to do it was Fenton between 1978-80.

“Having won two state titles, we had already tagged the opportunity as, ‘Let’s do something unthinkable. Let’s dream big and work hard and prepare to just give yourself the chance to get back to Secchia Field (at Michigan State),'” coach Salo said. “Those kids had really bought into that by the amount of work they did prior to tryouts. We came into tryouts with a really solid group that had put themselves ahead of the curve. You would have loved to have seen what those kids would have been able to have done on the field… We couldn’t have put a harder schedule in front of them and we couldn’t have put any more miles out there than we planned on traveling.

“It’ll always be the unthinkable year of the missed opportunity.”

He also acknowledged all the work that goes into coaching and preparation makes it a tougher pill to swallow.

“Coaching is a year-round sport now,” he said. “The amount of time you put in to build your schedule, to arrange your travel, to do the fundraising their needs to be, to put the athletes in the right spot, to do the extra work to get your team ready… We live in that environment where we don’t get outside as early as other places. We have to practice harder and we have to practice smarter to make sure that they’re ready to play against teams in Wisconsin and lower Michigan that get an extra month more outside than we do.”

Gabi’s sensational career came to a much more abrupt end than she anticipated. Last season, she was named the Michigan High School Softball Player of the Year after finishing with 351 strikeouts and a microscopic 0.26 ERA. She was the key cog in both runs to a state title.

“I think what I’ll remember the most is the teammates I had — they definitely became family,” she said. “The community — they’re always supporting us and behind us in everything we do. Escanaba really has the best fanbase. I’ll just miss everything about high school softball, the environment that it provided and the opportunities it gave me.”

For her and the rest of the Eskymos, it will always be remembered as the season that could have been. The opportunity lost and the season that never was.

“I definitely think it will be remembered,” she said. “Nobody will ever forget the season that they never played.”

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