INDIAN RIVER - Akron, Ohio, may not be the most glamorous town, but for the 13- and 14-year-old girls on the Escanaba Junior Little League softball team, 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.
"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 two-hitter in a 10-0 victory over Esky.
"I'm just glad we didn't have to face her," Hiney said after Rockford advanced past Tri-Rivers 3-1 in one of the semifinals earlier that day.
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, the Upper Peninsula girls 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.
Rockford put a runner in scoring position in every inning but the fourth, totaling five hits.
Earlier in the semifinals, Escanaba put together 16 hits to mercy 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.
After taking a 3-2 lead in the third, Escanaba exploded in the later innings, putting up five runs in the fourth and four in the fifth.
The Esky girls now head to Akron, Ohio as state champions, where they will face off against state champs from states that include Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. The tournament begins Saturday and runs through Aug. 7.