It was around the time that Escanaba's baseball team began their seventh inning rally that I thought 'boy, win or lose, this is unique.' And it sure was. This season, an unprecedented five teams from Delta County won district titles - Escanaba baseball and softball, Gladstone baseball and softball and Rapid River softball.
U.P. Power indeed.
The sports have long been a tradition in the area going back to success at the Little League level. Every season it seems, it's a rite of passage for the next group to come along and win a district title. The Gladstone girls have done it 14 consecutive times. 14! It was a pre 9-11 world the last time Gladstone softball went home empty-handed.
Escanaba softball has been to two consecutive state quarterfinals and just won its third straight district title. Rapid River softball were state quarterfinalists last season and prior to that, had made two consecutive trips to the FInal Four. This district title was their sixth in a row.
Escanaba baseball has had success in the past. From 2005-09, the team won five consecutive district titles. The team also won one in 2012.
Gladstone baseball is the new kid on the block, in its second year as a baseball program, since the teams of old that took the field in the 1950's. This was the revitalized program's first title.
Still even with all that success, it seems it's still hard to get respect from the team's they face downstate. I was talking to the Cheboygan coaches prior to the baseball district semifinal and they seemed a little smug and cocky over the fact that starting catcher Sean Bissell was out with the flu. This was prior to Cheboygan getting beat by Escanaba 19-3 of course. It's funny, as U.P. teams we tend to build up the competition downstate, but downstate teams tend to take the competiton from the U.P. lightly. Why is that? There's been way too many examples of U.P. teams having success below the bridge to overlook them.
At the Braves' softball field, a banner that proudly displays each title hangs on the concession stand, and serves as both a source of pride, perhaps an intimidating sign for opponents, but also a kind of pressure for the home team, in that it's something for each team to live up to.
Gladstone may have been feeling that pressure last Friday when it faced Negaunee in a game that was far closer than expected.
Through 10 innings, the teams were deadlocked in a scoreless tie, the Braves' bats shut down by Negaunee's Rosalie Anderson, while Gladstone ace Christine Sharon did her thing to keep her team alive.
Sharon later admitted it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences she's had as a pitcher, and who could blame her? In the 10th inning, by sheer luck (fate?) Gladstone stayed alive. With a Negaunee runner at third, Anderson launched a ball to deep left that wasn't going to be caught. If it had dropped fair, it's game over. Instead the ball went just foul and the Braves had new life. They took advantage and the rest is history.
First-year manager Ashley Hughes seemed as relieved as anyone following the game. I can imagine, if Hughes holds herself to the standard this program has set precedent for, which I'm sure she does, that she was feeling the pressure as much as anyone wearing purple that day.
The Braves can exhale now, but only briefly. There is still work to be done, Saturday in Traverse City.
Escanaba baseball had my favorite moment of the weekend. It was a difficult day for me in Petoskey as I scampered back and forth between two fields to cover both Escanaba teams. It worked out better than I could have imagined. I had just finished covering the softball team's district championship game and arrived back at the baseball field to see Escanaba down 3-0 to Petoskey entering the seventh inning.
Immediately my own bar for what to expect was lowered, but even then, as I looked around, I didn't see any heads hanging on the Esky bench. There was confidence, and did it ever shine through.
Hit after hit after hit, there were balls suddenly finding daylight and dropping for singles and doubles. Suddenly it was 3-2 when Lewis Ostrander launched a double. At once, Hunter LaMarch bolted for home, in the moment extending too much. The Petoskey catcher had the ball and blocked the basepath as LaMarch collided with him. He was declared out by the home plate umpire. That was Escanaba's second out, and though they had runners and second and third, the game now rest on the bat of Ben Kleiman.
I thought about the emotional recovery needed to overcome losing what would have been the tying run. I watched as Kleiman went down in the count 0-2, and I saw the look on his face. He was loose. His expression seemed to say 'I got this.' And he did.
Kleiman ripped a clutch two-run double, Esky led 4-3 and ended the top half of the inning with a 5-3 lead.
Then, the story gets better yet as Tyler Skufca was called upon to close the game. Skufca had caught two games in 85 degree heat by that point, but was asked to do the important job due to soreness in Kleiman's arm.
Skufca immediately hit the first batter as you could literally hear the sound of teeth clinching from the Escanaba collective. But going on pure adrenaline, Skufca recovered and got the next three outs in order without a threat, capping one of the most improbable victories in Escanaba baseball history. Moments like that are the reason I became a sportswriter. There's nothing better than seeing the outright joy on the faces of the athletes I've covered for the last few years.
There were five district titles won this weekend, but to me, two stuck out more than the others. There was the team that escaped and the team that rallied. One team erupted and one team exhaled.
We'll soon find out just how long this ride extends. Five Delta County teams will travel downstate on Saturday. Hopefully they'll show them that the U.P. is a force to be reckoned with.