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D2 SOFTBALL FINALS: Escanaba beats Stevensville Lakeshore to go back-to-back, earn a stop at Wienerlicious

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, June 16, 2019, 9:46 am

EAST LANSING — Wienerlicious probably never knew what hit them.

A running inside joke for the Escanaba softball team throughout the season, the Mackinaw City hot dog eatery became the expected destination for a stopover on the six-hour drive back from East Lansing, as the Eskymos carried yet another trophy back across the bridge to the Upper Peninsula.

The Eskymos beat Stevensville-Lakeshore, 7-3, at Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium on Saturday, successfully defending their Division 2 title.

“It means so much. Our school went without a title from 1981 until we won it last year, and for us to bring home another one — I don’t have words. I’m so incredibly proud of this team,” said junior pitcher Gabi Salo, who picked up her own hardware as Total Softball Michigan High School Softball Player of the Year after the game.

“It feels better, going back to back.”

The Eskymos (34-3) will take their trophies back to Delta County, and were hoping to make it back earlier than they did a year ago, when the celebration of their arrival was muted a bit by the late hour.

But there’s still time for a stop-off for hot dogs.

“We travel so stinking much, one of the times we were crossing the (Mackinac) Bridge, we were joking, I told the girls, ‘We’re Yoopers. We’re not going to go to Disney World when we win a title. We’re going to go to Wienerlicious.’ It’s been our joke for the last three weeks. We kept saying ‘We’re three wins away from Wienerlicious. We’re two wins away from Wienerlicious,’” said first-year coach Gary Salo, Gabi’s father.

“It’s hilarious, because us Yoopers will pack the parking lot, and we’re going to sing the fight song, at some spot that has no idea how many people are coming. We’re going to organize. Last year, we played late, so we pulled into town late. But the way social media is, we’re going to organize, and they’re going to get the reception they deserve.”

To get past Stevensville-Lakeshore (33-11), though, the Eskymos had to tame a potent offense that averaged more than eight runs per game, and had torn up another Player of the Year candidate two days earlier. Gabi Salo said the Eskymos watched that game — where the Lancers rapped out eight runs on 11 hits against Grace Lehto — with some trepidation.

“I think everyone was a little taken aback. Grace is an amazing pitcher, and they have an amazing lineup,” Gabi Salo said. “They’re a very good team, but I knew that if I threw my best, we had a good chance to win this.”

Throwing her best meant a little tune-up for the change-up, by way of a visit to Salo’s pitching coach.

“Yesterday, we did the same exact thing we did last year. We snuck off and we got a field at Holt High School, and got a 2 o’clock appointment with coach Pat Brower, Gabi’s pitching coach. … He locked in her change-up. He said ‘Let’s just work on your change-up, not anything else.’ He’s not only the best pitching coach I’ve seen, he just gets that last little bit out of her. I’m her dad. He just sees that, just gets it,” Gary Salo said.

“By far, her best pitch, when she’s locked in, is down-and-in with the curveball, and a change up that, man, if it’s on, good luck trying to hit that.”

Armed with her full array of pitches, Gabi Salo struck out 11, walked one and hit one batter in Saturday’s title game, but still gave up three earned runs — or one fewer than she’d given up ALL SEASON — on seven hits. Salo’s ERA — a minuscule 0.158 coming into the game, rose to 0.26 thanks to the Lancers, who hit .250 (7 for 28) in the game. Opponents had been hitting .172 on the season against Salo.

Lakeshore jumped on Salo for one run in the top of the first on M. Younger’s RBI double, but wouldn’t score again until A. Chellman’s pinch-hit two-run single to left.

Escanaba right fielder Lexi Chaillier threw a runner out at the plate to keep the rally in check, and nearly made a spectacular diving catch to close out the rally.

“She’s our best outfielder, playing right field, because Gabi throws so hard,” Gary Salo said. “A lot of people are going to test right field, so she’s there.”

Gabi Salo insisted her defense doesn’t get enough credit, pointing out Chaillier and catcher Dakota Cloutier in particular.

“I didn’t even have time to watch the throw, but I watched her tag and thought, ‘She’s out,’” Gabi Salo said. “They’re a good team. They have good sticks. They shortened up their swings, they put the bat on the ball, and made our defense make the plays. I think when our defense is more engaged, our bats are better.”

The Eskymos had struggle to score in bunches recently, but these bats did break out a bit.

Escanaba tied the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the first, on Gabi Salo’s sacrifice fly, then made it 2-1 in the second, on Chaillier’s groundout.

The Eskymos got three runs on a dropped fly ball in the fourth to make it 5-1, then answered Lakeshore’s two-run rally in the top of the sixth, when Chaillier scored on a throwing error, and Carsyn Segorski scored on a passed ball.

Now the Eskymos have to head back to the UP, and possibly to a few tests.

“We’ve been on the road since Monday (before quarterfinals), and these kids didn’t take their final exams,” Gary Salo said, “and I gotta hope that some of those teachers just tell these kids they got an ‘A’ on their exam.”