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Esky baseball avenges ghosts of losses past, wins second district title in last four seasons

“The Big Dog” Mitch Vosburg Daily Press Escanaba coach Scott Hanson (31) attempts to slide feet first into home plate after winning a MHSAA Division 2 district championship on June 1, 2024 at Cheboygan High School. Escanaba defeated Sault Ste. Maire, who knocked off the Eskymos in last season’s district title game, and Cheboygan, who they lost to in 2022’s district championship game, 6-0 and 5-2, respectively to claim a district championship.

ESCANABA — A warm, cloudy, early June afternoon set the stage for the moment of a lifetime for Escanaba baseball.

The Eskymos were one out away from claiming their first district championship since 2021, when their current crop of seniors were young, bright eyed freshmen. It was senior Ben Johnson who was tasked with recording the final six out against district host Cheboygan, a team which Esky has history with, but we’ll get to that later.

Johnson earned a 1-2-3 sixth inning. His command began to lose its crispness in the seventh, issuing two walks and a RBI single to shrink Esky’s lead to 5-2, and the Chiefs had the bases loaded with two outs.

Johnson’s 1-1 pitch was smacked on the ground toward third baseman Cannon Arnt. Multiple voices from the Eskymo dugout screamed at Arnt to touch third base. Arnt heard their pleas as he grabbed the ball and began walking to third.

But how did the Eskymos get to this point? How did the orange and black find themselves one simple force out away from a district championship?

It all started in the spring, which starts in late March/early April for most of Michigan. Except for the Upper Peninsula, where spring starts, hopefully, on May 1st. But thanks to the turf bay at the Wells Sports Complex, home to Escanaba’s hockey scene, area teams are able to put in work year round.

The 2024 iteration of Esky baseball featured a unique blend of characters. You had five seniors.

There’s Bon LaChance, who will play baseball at Bay College after breaking Escanaba’s career RBI and double record. You have Johnson, who will spend Saturday’s running the ball down GLIAC foe’s throats as a running back with the Michigan Tech Football team. There’s “The Deer” Eli Gardner, “Freshman” Chase Cloutier and “Nick “The Charleston” Chiu, along with Reese Korhonen, who had to sit out the 2023 season after he transferred from nearby Bark River-Harris.

This senior class were freshmen from the program’s 2021 team which won a district title before falling 5-2 to Muskegon Oakridge in the regional title game. But adding another trophy proved to be a challenging task.

The Eskymos defeated Sault Ste. Marie 2-0 in district semifinals before falling to Cheboygan 1-0 in nine innings in 2022. After a combined no-hitter against Great Northern Conference rival Kingsford in the semifinal round, the Eskymos fell to Sault Ste. Marie 6-5 in nine innings in district finals in 2023 in Escanaba.

If the Eskymos wanted to bring home a district championship trophy in 2024, they had to go through a district which once again featured Sault Ste. Marie, Kingsford and Cheboygan.

“We need to win districts this year,” LaChance said after striking out eight in a 13-1 win over Marquette on April 29. “I would be very pleased if we win districts. Freshman year we won one, but I wasn’t really part of that, I was cheering them on.”

But the twist for the orange and black came not from the six seniors abilities on the ball field. It came with the supporting class, which featured zero juniors.

But the Eskymos had an ace not up their sleeve, but in the form of now sophomore Lennox Peacock, who walked four and struckout 12 in 6 1/3 innings of the combined no-hitter over Kingsford in 2023’s district semifinals and entered the 2024 season inside the Top 25 in the Michigan Prep Baseball Report for class of 2026. Outside of Peacock, developing the remaining eight underclassmen was vital. It was a high-priority focus for the Escanaba coaching staff.

And what better way to develop young talent than throwing them to wolves?

The Eskymos non-conference featured some of the premiere teams from Michigan and Wisconsin. Esky faced the likes of Fond du Lac, Green Bay Notre Dame Academy, Muskegon Mona Shores, Southgate Anderson and Green Bay Preble.

“Everything was in preparation to win (a district title),” Esky coach Scott Hanson said. “I think it really helped us.”

But an ugly habit began to form. The Eskymos defense struggled mightily at times.

The flaw came to light on April 24 against Kingsford. LaChance took the mound for game one of a doubleheader, and while he can struggle with command, evident by the quartet of first-inning walks against the Flivvers, he allowed one ball to leave the infield in the opening frame.

Escanaba trailed 7-0 after the first inning after committing three crucial errors. LaChance took the loss, allowing two earned runs off three hits with four walks and two strikeouts.

The Eskymos were left with no choice but to clean up their defensive flaws if they wanted a district championship. Especially if they wanted LaChance to emerge as the team’s No. 2 starter.

All of that came to fruition on May 23rd, a night game against the Knights of Norway, a team which is one of four teams remaining in Division 4. A pitching duel between Peacock and Knights’ senior Alex Ortman served as the backdrop for a matchup which tickled the fancy of a majority of U.P. sports fans.

The Eskymos captured a 1-0 lead thanks to a bases loaded walk in the first inning. It was a slim lead against a talented Knights squad. A win and momentum entering the final doubleheader of the season and districts required the Eskymos bugaboo in the field to be calmed.

Outside of one hiccup, an error by freshman catcher Mikaiden Hughes, Esky managed to play clean defense in a crucial game. Johnson made not one, not two, but three plays that were worthy of SportsCenter’s Top 10 at shortstop.

It also helped that Peacock’s fastball, changeup and slurve were on point on that warm, May evening. With a complete game shutout which featured two hits, three walks and 10 strikeouts the Eskymos claimed the 1-0 win.

The code was cracked on defense. All it took was Gardner manning the hot corner at third base.

“I don’t think he’s played third base since he was 10 years old,” Hanson said of Gardner after a doubleheader sweep over Superior Central on May 28. “I probably should have done that a long time ago. He’s a really, really good third baseman.”

But more importantly, the Eskymos had momentum entering their district semifinal contest against the all-to-familiar Sault Ste. Maire, who already had a 4-0 win over the Eskymos in Escanaba on May 11.

This matchup, however, was going to be different. This matchup had the postseason pressure cranked up to 11. Especially with Cheboygan knocking off Kingsford 8-6 in the first district semifinal game. It also came with the Chiefs committing six errors in the win.

Both the Blue Devils and Eskymos smelled blood in the water like a starved great white shark in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“We came to a realization that all that matters is today,” Johnson said on June 1. “If we put the past behind us, we come to play and we lock in good things will happen.”

The Eskymos drew first blood thanks to a Blue Devils hiccup in the field for a 1-0 lead after three innings. The score stood through six innings. Peacock was lights out, striking out 10 while surrendering one hit and one walk up to that point.

The pressure was on. And once Esky freshman Brody Ison wore a pitch dead center to his back, the first crack formed for Sault Ste. Marie.

Ison stole home. Chiu and Johnson earned RBI singles. LaChance drove in two with a single of his own.

The Blue Devils were left in a pile of rubble. The Eskymos led 6-0. Peacock struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh for the win.

“I worked certain pitches really well (against the Blue Devils),” Peacock said. “The bottom part of the strike zone was really what (the umpire) was giving us a lot today. I made sure to attack on that and keep hitters off balance, which was the game plan coming in.”

The 2023 loss to Sault Ste. Marie was avenged. All that stood in the Eskymos way for their second district championship win in four years was a win over Cheboygan.

A Chiefs miscue, a RBI single from Chiu and a two-run single from Cloutier gave Esky a 4-0 lead midway through two innings. All they needed was a strong defensive effort behind LaChance on the mound.

LaChance went 4 1/3 innings. He surrendered two hits, one earned run, walked six and struck out eight. The Eskymos played clean defense behind him.

More importantly, LaChance gave the Eskymos a chance to win.

“I knew it right from the start,” Johnson said of LaChance. “I stayed with him (the night before). We’ve been locked in since the trip here. I knew this could have potentially been our last game. I knew he wasn’t going to come out here and play bad. He played amazing. It’s awesome.”

But Cheboygan didn’t roll over onto its backs and stare at the sun until it was all over. LaChance exited the game with runners on the corners for Arnt, who was tasked with one objective: get two outs with the lead intact.

Arnt immediately surrendered a single which gave Cheboygan its first run. He struck out the next batter he faced, but then saw a 1-2 advantage turn into a walk to load the bases and fell behind 3-1 to the ensuing batter.

The pressure was on. One false move and the floodgates could open to tie the game. Everything the orange and black worked for since the days on the turf bay in March go up in smoke.

Then Arnt earned a swinging strike two. With a full count and the bases loaded, Arnt fired an uncontested strike three to end the threat. He completed his objective, getting two crucial outs to keep Esky’s lead alive.

“Canon Arnt got us out of trouble,” Hanson said. “You could say I pulled him after one inning or a couple of outs. But he got us out of that (jam).”

Two innings later he earned a third crucial out, the final out of the game for a 5-2 win.

“It feels like I can do anything now,” LaChance said after the win over the Chiefs. “This has been the hardest thing I’ve been trying to do for the past two years. Losing by one run in the ninth inning, thinking (winning districts is) impossible. It’s all I ever wanted.”

The 2022 loss to Cheboygan was avenged. The Eskymos earned their second district championship in four seasons.

“People don’t realize how hard it is to win our district,” Johnson said. “It’s really a blessing.”

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