Courageous Carpenter Serving Winners Again

By Pam Shebest
Special for

May 21, 2019

PORTAGE — With her bubbly personality and bright smile, Abby Carpenter looks like any other tennis player trying to win points for her team.

But the Portage Central sophomore's path to return to play for one of the state's top teams has been anything but typical.

Carpenter has suffered eight concussions and fought her way onto the team through physical therapy, medication and sheer determination.

“The first (concussion) was a mild one in fifth grade,” she said. “It was playing badminton in gym class.

“The serious ones were in volleyball my freshman year. I got two in volleyball and one in tennis.”

The one in tennis sidelined her all last season, so she is doubly excited now that the Mustangs have qualified for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals at Holland.

“I was at the net and someone was serving and served it into the back of my head in warm ups, actually, so I didn’t get to play a single match last year,” she said.

Her love of sports has kept her fighting to play, and her perseverance has kept her on the court, although it has not been easy.

“I don’t normally have a stutter but I actually have something called concussion conversion syndrome, meaning no matter how often my head’s hit, my brain tries to shut itself down and it goes into shock and tries to protect itself, causing concussion-like symptoms,” she said.

“They used to last for months but then I’ve gone to therapy to basically teach myself how to get out of them and prevent the full shutdown. I can prevent some of them, and I have my medicine to prevent some of the side effects.”

She also has vision issues.

In spite of all that, she played her way to the No. 4 singles spot for coach Peter Militzer’s Mustangs.

“I’ve always been over-competitive and I don’t like the thought of letting other people down because of my individual struggle,” she said. “I’m hardest on myself more than anyone, so I don’t want to let myself down.

“Tennis is the only sport I’m cleared to play by my neurologist.”

Carpenter gets treated at The CORE Institute in Brighton and “I’m under intense concussion treatment and take daily medication and physical therapies,” she said.

“At one point, I had to relearn to talk and walk because I got such a bad concussion. It’s been a long road.”

Portage Central qualified for the MHSAA tournament May 31-June 1 by finishing second to Mattawan at last weekend’s Regional.

Militzer was not sure how the team would fare since he has just one senior, Riley Burns, who teams with junior Lea Stephen at No. 3 doubles.

‘We are really strong at No. 1 singles (junior Casey Smith) and No. 1 doubles (juniors Ashnu Mehra and Kimberly Kovacik, who won the Regional title) but I think we have good depth at both singles and doubles,” Militzer said.

“Any time you have one senior, you don’t think you’re going to do really well. But we have a good nucleus of juniors and some really good freshmen and a couple new players.”

One of those surprising freshmen is Sydney Sonday.

“She’s a swimmer but her mom and dad are avid tennis players,” Militzer said. “She picked it up quick and is doing quite well.”

“Going into the season, we’re looking at our lineup and we knew (freshman) Diya (Singh at No. 2 singles) and (freshman) Carly (Smith, No. 2 doubles with junior Alyson Miller) coming in would be good and would contribute at a high spot, but we weren’t sure where we were going to be in singles.

“Sydney settled in at 3 singles, and Abby has done well at 4 singles.”

Casey Smith has played at the top spot all three years.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking at first, especially freshman year, because I had never really done a team sport since elementary school. So to be put into that atmosphere was definitely a learning moment for me,” said Smith, who also competes in USTA tournaments.

“It taught me a lot about myself. I feel like I learned to deal with pressure in nervous matches. We all know that in every single one of our positions, we’re all worth the same. We just have to do our jobs.”

Portage Central improved from 11th at the LPD2 Finals in 2017 to eighth a year ago, and moved up to No. 8 in this week’s coaches association rankings with another Finals opportunity coming up.

“It’s so exciting for all of us because it means we get to keep hitting and get to keep practicing with each other for another couple of weeks,” Smith said.

“We never want it to end at Regionals when we know we can go farther. Just to play a lot more competition and to play teams we don’t normally play is really exciting.”

After finishing runner-up to Mattawan’s Kate Novak at Regionals, Smith hopes to be seeded at states for the first time.

“I’m tired of playing seeds in the second round,” she said. “I’ve had to play first round, and I’ve lost my second round both years.

“Both have been good matches, but I really want to start second round this year. That’s a goal.”

Militzer said Smith is a hard worker and great defensive player.

“She can run down things, and players who go out on the court against her will have to hit two or three winners before the point ends,” he said. “That can wear on a person during a match.

“She’s always had a few weapons, and her weapons are getting stronger and more consistent as she’s matures.”

With her sister Carly playing doubles, Casey Smith said she tries to keep an eye on her sister’s match when they are both on the court.

“I feel like I’m only watching when it’s not a distraction,” Casey Smith said. “I feel like I’m pretty good at pulling myself back into my match. But I do watch over there on changeovers.”

Although she is the younger sister, Carly Smith is definitely not the “little” sister.

At 5-foot-9, she also plays volleyball and is very happy playing doubles during the spring. She and Miller were No. 2 doubles champs at Regionals.

“I like when you have someone to pump you up and cheer you up when you’re down,” she said. “Singles is not my thing.”

Sophomores Molly Rohs and Jana Schnur round out the roster at No. 4 doubles.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Central sophomore Abby Carpenter receives encouragement from coach Peter Militzer during Saturday’s Regional. (Middle) Clockwise, from top left: Carpenter, Militzer, Carly Smith and Casey Smith. (Below) Casey Smith returns a volley during one of her Regional matches at No. 1 singles. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)

Lacrosse Finals Move to U-M Among Headlines as Spring Sports Ramp Up

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

April 9, 2024

The Girls & Boys Lacrosse Finals will be played at University of Michigan Lacrosse Stadium for the first time, one of the most notable changes for this season as sports ramp up for more than 100,000 athletes anticipated to participate this spring for Michigan High School Athletic Association member schools.

The MHSAA sponsors postseason competition each spring in baseball, girls and boys lacrosse, girls soccer, softball, girls and boys track & field, boys golf (Lower and Upper Peninsula) and girls golf (UP), and girls (LP) and boys (UP) tennis.

The U-M Lacrosse Stadium opened for competition in 2018 and seats 2,000 spectators. The Girls Lacrosse Finals will be played Friday, June 7, with Division 1 at 4 p.m. and Division 2 at 7 p.m. The Boys Lacrosse Finals will be played the following day, June 8, with Division 2 at 11 a.m. and Division 1 at 2 p.m.

Girls lacrosse also has a significant format adjustment this season, as games will be played with four 12-minutes quarters instead of the previous two halves, in part to allow coaches more opportunities to provide direct instruction during a game. Two more rules changes are expected to improve flow of play – players awarded a free position outside of the critical scoring area no longer must come to a stop and settled stance before self-starting, and false start penalties outside the critical scoring area have been eliminated.

Several more rules changes will be noticeable this spring:

In boys lacrosse, a change was made to enhance player safety. Play will stop immediately any time a player’s helmet comes off, and that player may not return until the next dead ball after play continues.

Fair and legal starts are a continued emphasis for track & field, and a rule change will allow for movement before the start of the race as long as a competitor does not leave their mark with a hand or a foot after the “set” command, or make forward motion before the starting device is activated.

A significant rule change in softball alters pitch delivery mechanics. The pitcher may now have both feet off the ground at the same time when releasing the ball as long as both feet remain within the 24-inch width of a pitching plate and the pitcher does not replant the pivot foot before delivering the pitch.

Another change in softball requires that a playbook/playcard be worn on the wrist or kept in a back pocket to reduce distractions. If worn by the pitcher, the equipment must be worn on the non-pitching arm. Similarly in baseball, a wristband with plays or instructions will be permitted but must be a single, solid color, and for pitchers may not contain the colors white or gray or be otherwise distracting. Baseball players must wear this wristband on the wrist or forearm, and pitchers may wear one only on their non-pitching arm.

Also in baseball, a rule change allows for one-way communication devices worn by the catcher to receive instructions from the dugout while on defense, for the purpose of calling pitches. The coach must be inside the dugout/bench area to use the communication device.

Golfers now are required to participate in at least four competitions for the high school team prior to representing that school team in an MHSAA Regional or Final. Those four regular-season competitions may be 9 or 18-hole events.

In tennis, for the first time in Lower Peninsula play, a No. 1 doubles flight from a non-qualifying team will be able to advance from its Regional to Finals competition. To do so, that No. 1 doubles flight must finish first or second at its Regional, and the No. 1 singles player from that team also must have qualified for the Finals individually by finishing first or second in Regional play.

On the soccer pitch, two officiating-related changes will be especially noticeable. Officials now may stop the clock to check on an injured player without that player being required to leave the match – previously that player would have to sub out. Also, categories for fouls have been redefined: careless (which is a foul but does not receive a card), reckless (a foul with a yellow card) and excessive force (foul with red card). 

The 2023-24 Spring campaign culminates with postseason tournaments, as the championship schedule begins with the Upper Peninsula Girls & Boys Golf and Boys Tennis Finals during the week of May 27 and wraps up with Girls Soccer, Baseball and Softball Finals on June 15. Here is a complete list of winter tournament dates:

Districts – May 23-June 1
Regional Semifinals – June 5
Regional Finals, Quarterfinals – June 8
Semifinals – June 13-14
Finals – June 15

LP Boys Regionals – May 28-June 1
UP Girls & Boys Finals – May 29, 30, 31 or June 1
LP Boys Finals – June 7-8

Boys Lacrosse
Pre-Regionals – May 10-15
Regionals – May 16-29
Quarterfinals – May 31 or June 1
Semifinals – June 5
Finals – June 8

Girls Lacrosse
Pre-Regionals – May 16-18, or May 20
Regionals – May 22-June 1
Semifinals – June 5
Finals – June 7

Girls Soccer
Districts – May 22-June 1
Regionals – June 4-8
Semifinals – June 11-12
Finals – June 14-15

Districts – May 23-June 1
Regionals – June 8
Quarterfinals – June 11
Semifinals – June 13-14
Finals – June 15

LP Girls Regionals – May 15-18
UP Boys Finals – May 29, 30, 31 or June 1
LP Girls Finals – May 31-June 1

Track & Field
Regionals – May 16-18
Finals – June 1