Softball districts made for exciting weekend

After his team rallied to win an eighth consecutive district title on Saturday afternoon, Rogers City softball coach Karl Grambau joked that the Hurons had saved him a trip to the hospital and money for a stress test.

You couldn’t blame him for thinking that. After two of the most tightly played district games I’ve ever seen, I’m sure Grambau was breathing a sigh of relief as were the players and more than a few fans.

The phrase ‘survive and advance’ gets thrown around a lot during playoff time, but it certainly rang true last weekend as the softball postseason began in Michigan. In the span of two days, I saw three games that felt like they could have very easily been for higher stakes than just a district title. Quite frankly I got spoiled with three fantastic games and was reminded how exciting softball is in Northeast Michigan is this time of year.

A 1-0 district semifinal win for Rogers City over Johannesburg-Lewiston?

An epic comeback by Onaway over Indian River Inland Lakes?

A fight to the finish between Rogers City and Hillman for a district title?

Remember, this is just districts we’re talking about. There’s still two more weekends of softball to be played, but after just one weekend, all I can do is shake my head in amazement.

The way the games played out, it was like going out to eat and being blown away by the appetizer before you even get to the main course.

The smiles, tears and long embraces shared by Onaway’s coaches after the Cardinals’ thrilling 7-6 district title win over Inland Lakes Friday said a lot. I remember quite clearly in 2012 when Rogers City snapped Onaway’s streak of five straight district titles. As I noted in Friday’s game story, the eight years since then have seen Onaway go through a lot of ups-and-downs, including three district final losses.

But this year is different. This year, Onaway got the better of the Bulldogs in the postseason, winning the rubber match for this year and avenging a district title loss from last season. This year, Onaway has arguably one of its greatest teams ever; one that’s bursting with talent, experience and a will to win (not to mention an astounding propensity for hitting home runs).

Patience at the plate and some key offensive moves at the right time opened the doors for Calley Selke’s game-tying three-run home run and Taylor Larson’s game-winning two-run single in the final and once Onaway seized momentum there was no giving it up.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon where after beating Joburg on a sac fly, the Hurons found themselves in a stalemate with Hillman.

The zeroes piled up and as each inning passed, the tension grew, the margin for error grew even thinner and fans grew more anxious.

Surely someone was going to win right? Eventually someone had to get on base and someone had to score, didn’t they?

The seventh inning transitioned into the eighth inning and then later to the ninth inning. This game it seemed, wasn’t going to have an end.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Rogers City awoke. Like a sleeping giant, the Hurons came alive suddenly and forcefully, hitting the ball with ease and piled up seven runs, eventually winning 9-2.

Hillman can be proud of its effort, but it was hard not to feel for the Tigers, who gave everything they had. The Tigers–who lost to Rogers City in a pair of 8-1 victories in April–gave everything they had during the district final and went toe-to-toe with a Rogers City program that’s won eight straight district titles by an average of more than eight runs.

Hillman certainly had several chances to earn a walk-off win. Between Bailey Schook’s long fly ball in the seventh inning (which looked like trouble coming off the bat) and Brooke Jones’s leadoff triple in the eighth (which turned into an out), I thought Hillman was actually going to pull off a major upset several times.

But that’s why the games are played on the field and not on paper. When the chips are down any team can beat any other team on any given day. If anything, this weekend served as a reminder of how incredibly difficult winning a district championship can be. Teams in the this area have been so good for so long that it’s easy to assume certain squads are going to win playoff games easily.

For the first time in a while, the Hurons looked probably more vunerable than I’ve ever seen them and these games undoubtedly served as a wakeup call they needed ahead of what will be a challenging weekend. If it goes the way I think it might, local fans could be in for a real treat–namely a pitching duel and two of the area’s best offenses.

It’s been three years since Rogers City and Onaway last met in the postseason. Assuming they both get to Saturday’s regional final in East Jordan, it’ll be a Presque Isle County showdown between two really good teams–Onaway is ranked No. 3 in Division 4, Rogers City is No. 4–with the stakes as high as they’ve ever been.

Make no mistake, both teams respect one another, but the rivalry still burns hot between the two schools and both teams very much want to win. I don’t have a rooting interest for either side, but I can’t lie; I’ve been hoping for these two teams to meet in the playoffs for a few years (and I think a lot of local fans have too).

The thrills of last weekend’s games served as a fantastic starter course to open the playoffs.

I can’t wait to see what delights regional weekend has in store.