2023 Runner-Up Whiteford, 2022 Runner-up Evart Set to Face Off for 2024 Title

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

June 14, 2024

EAST LANSING – Ottawa Lake Whiteford clung to a precarious 1-0 lead over upset-minded Clare entering the final inning Friday, but fifth-year coach Matt VanBrandt showed no signs of panic.

After all, his team has learned by experience how to handle the big stage – advancing to state championship games the past two years.

And the Bobcats are led by one of Michigan’s best pitchers in senior Unity Nelson.

“Unity lives for moments like that,” explained VanBrandt. “She is extremely intense and driven and determined to lead this team as far as she possibly can. We believe in her.”

Nelson made her coach look like a prophet, striking out three straight batters on just 11 pitches in the seventh inning to give her team the 1-0 victory over Clare in Friday’s first Division 3 Semifinal.

“Before that last inning, I took a deep breath and got myself centered and ready to go, one batter at a time,” Nelson said.

Whiteford (30-5-1) will take on Buchanan in Saturday’s 3 p.m. Division 3 Final at Secchia Stadium.

That title game is a classic matchup of the dominating arm of Nelson against the big bats of Evart, which totaled 14 hits – including three long home runs over the left-field fence – in an 8-3 win over Buchanan in Friday’s second Semifinal.

The Bobcats are seeking their first Finals title since 1987, when they capped a run of three Class D crowns over four years. Saturday’s will be their ninth overall appearance in a Final and fourth since 2017.

Whiteford lost last year’s Division 3 championship game to Standish-Sterling (1-0) and fell to Unionville-Sebewaing (4-1) in the 2022 Division 4 Final.

VanBrandt knows that in order to break through and take the final steps, his team’s offense needs to give their ace pitcher more help.

“I feel like our offense is close,” said VanBrandt, whose team has only allowed two runs over the past four games. “We put a lot of pressure on (Clare) today. We had baserunners almost every inning, and if we keep doing that, we will score some runs.”

The Bobcats left nine runners on base, but were able to make the one run they scored in the bottom of the first inning stand up.

Shaylin Alexander and Brooklyn Mills both had singles for Whiteford in the first inning, with Alexander scoring the game’s lone run on a bunt single from sophomore Koralynn Billau.

At that point, it looked like Whiteford was poised to score a bunch more, but Clare hung tough behind outstanding defense and a crafty pitching performance by junior Madison Jones.

Nelson, who entered this week with a 0.82 ERA and twice as many strikeouts as innings pitched, will play her final prep game Saturday before embarking on her college career at North Dakota.

“It’s amazing to get back here again in my senior year,” said Nelson. “This is the reason we have all worked so hard this season, to get one more chance.”

Mills and Billau both had two hits for Whiteford.

Clare, which closed its most successful softball season in 38 years at 36-6-1, was nearly flawless in the field, with just one error and diving catches by right fielder Macie Hensley in the fifth inning and second baseman Alissa Brandon in the sixth.

Jones kept the Bobcats off-balance all game, allowing six hits, two walks and striking out five.

“I never have to worry about effort from these girls, I’ll tell you that,” said third-year Clare coach Shane Kelly. “All year, we’ve always found a way to pull out close games. We had our chances today, but we couldn’t get that timely hit or bunt.”

Morgan Campbell, Breez Yarger and Jones all had hits for Clare.

Click for the full box score.

Evart 8, Buchanan 3

First-year Evart coach Shaun Gray perfectly summed up Friday’s second Division 3 Semifinal with his opening postgame comment:

“We hit the crap out of the ball right from the start of the game,” said Gray, who had just guided the Wildcats to their second Division 3 title game in three years.

The first batter Friday, Evart sophomore pitcher Kyrah Gray, hit a pitch all the way to the warning track, foreshadowing things to come.

Evart’s Mattisen Tiedt stretches to make an out as Buchanan’s Aspen Berry races for the bag.Buchanan led 2-1 after four innings, but Gray led off the fifth with a similar shot as her first, and this one cleared the Spartan head in left-center to tie the game. The next batter, Allyson Theunick, followed with another blast over the wall to give her team a lead it would never relinquish.

“That one felt so good,” said Theunick, a senior catcher who now has 11 home runs this season and was a member of the 2022 team that finished runner-up to Millington. “We pick each other up. One of my really good teammates struck out a little earlier, so I said that I was going to hit a home run for her.”

Katelyn Gostlin put the game away in the sixth inning with the biggest blast of all, clearing the Secchia Stadium scoreboard for a three-run homer.

Emily Miller led fourth-ranked Evart (36-4) with three hits, while Gray, Gostlin and Mattisen Tiedt all had two.

Gray picked up her 26th win of the season, going all seven innings, allowing five hits and one walk, while striking out seven.

Buchanan (35-6), which was ranked third, was led by senior shortstop Hannah Herman, who went 3-for-3. Camille Lozmack had two RBIs, and Hailee Kara had a hit and the final RBI.

“We got out-hit today. That’s really all there is to it,” said seventh-year Buchanan coach Rachel Carlson. “But these girls rallied an entire town. They have changed the face of Buchanan softball forever.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) An Ottawa Lake Whiteford hitter drives a pitch during Friday’s Semifinal win. (Middle) Evart’s Mattisen Tiedt stretches to make an out as Buchanan’s Aspen Berry races for the bag.