State champs

INDIAN RIVER, Mich. – Akron, Ohio may not be the most glamourous town, but for the Escanaba Junior (age 13-14) Little League girls, it represents the land of opportunity, and they couldn’t be more excited.

Escanaba punched its ticket to the U.S. Central Regional after a convincing 4-0 victory over Rockford in the state championship game, Saturday afternoon at Cooperation Park.

“I Didn’t expect this at all,” said an ecstatic Vance Hiney, Escanaba’s manager. “The girls just kept at it.”

In actuality, the Esky girls spent most of the preceding evening and morning preparing for the host Tri-Rivers team and ace pitcher Cloe Mallory. Two days earlier in pool play Mallory pitched a 2-hitter in a 10-0 victory over Esky.

“We talked to (Bruce) Heller and he was telling us what we should try to do,” said Hiney. “I’m just glad we didn’t have to face her.”

That’s because Rockford advanced past Tri-Rivers 3-1 in the first semifinal of the day, helping to set the stage.

In the title game, Escanaba, playing as the home team, held off a first inning charge, stranding a runner at third. In the bottom of the inning they put up two runs.

Claire McInerney led off with a single and stole second and Taylor Gauthier scored her with a double. Hannah Edington then hit a sac-grounder to advance Gauthier to third, where she scored on an error off the bat of Savannah Barron. That would be all Escanaba needed thanks to lockdown pitching from Edington and stellar fielding by the Esky defense.

Heather Bergstrom, who was named tournament MVP made several accurate long throws to first to narrowly throw out runners, and also helped turn a double play, and McInerney made a nice leaping grab for an out on a fly ball, that saved a sure double.

“Our fielding was phenomenal,” said Hiney. “These games that we’ve been playing, they’re snagging balls out of nowhere and they’ve gotten them down. That kills the other team.

“When they hit a line shot out there and someone goes running and diving and rolling across the ground, that kills them. And Heather was phenomenal. I was in the dugout and I said “hey MVP” and then later they say MVP for Heather and I said, I called it. She shut them down out there.”

Rockford never went away during the game. Pitcher Jenna Davis gave up nine hits but her and her defense often came up with the big out that prevented a big inning for Esky. She struck out five and walked none.

At the plate, Rockford put a runner in scoring position in every inning but the fourth, totaling five hits.

Escanaba added another run in the fourth with only two batters. Barron led off with a single, stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error on the same play. Two outs later, Lexi Chaillier scored her with a double. Esky then added one more insurance run in the fifth. McInerney led off with a single and Malary Hiney followed with another single before Gauthier ripped her third double of the game to bat in the run. On the same play Hiney was forced out on a pickle play between third and home.

McInerney and Gauthier were each 3-for-3, Gauthier with two RBIs.

“Anybody on our team can hit the ball, that’s why it’s so nice,” said Hiney. “It doesn’t matter where we are in the order, they can all hit it. They can all lay down a bunt if we need it.

“Claire gets on base all the time for me. I tell her to bunt every now and then and she looks at me like ‘do I have to?’ But she’s so fast. I can’t say enough about all of these girls. They’re awesome. We have a lot young girls on this team and now we’re going to go have fun.”

Earlier in the semifinal, Escanaba mercied St. Clair 12-2 in five innings.

St. Clair, which eliminated Escanaba a year ago, took a 2-0 lead in the first, helped by three Escanaba errors.

“it didn’t even faze them,” Hiney said of his team.

Escanaba chipped away, getting one back in the bottom of the inning on an RBI double from Gauthier, who finished the day 6-for-7 at the plate with four doubles.

In the second inning, Cassie Wissler led off with a single that went right back at pitcher Maddie Mead, hitting her in the hand. St. Clair switched Mead to first base and replaced her with Jessica Bohn. Escanaba then tied the game up on an RBI single by Abby Jackson.

After taking a 3-2 lead in the third, Escanaba exploded in the fourth, putting up five runs. Esky put up four more runs in the fifth, ending the game prematurely with no outs on an error. Barron launched a high fly ball that was wasn’t caught and Edington scored.

Edington was the winning pitcher in both games. In the semifinal, she allowed five hits with two walks and struck out two. In the title game, she allowed five hits, one walk and struck out five.

Escanaba totaled 16 hits in the semifinal and 25 on the day.

Gauthier and McInerney along with the rest of the team had to deal with three different pitchers, each with a different throwing motion. Gauthier said it wasn’t easy.

“The pitchers were pretty good and oh my God, it’s really hard (to adjust),” she said. “The one girl pitched at 65 and this girl was around 50, you had to stay back on it. We were pretty confident at bat.”

The Esky girls now head to Akron, Ohio as state champions, where they will face off against state champs from Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and others. The tournament begins Aug. 2 and runs through Aug. 7.

“I’m really excited,” said McInerney following the game, admitting she was in shock. “I can’t even describe it right now. I just wanted to get out of states.”