By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — It never feels like just another game for Unionville-Sebewaing this deep into the MHSAA softball tournament.
Any team made up of high school kids is going to feel some nerves, even if they represent a program that has played in the Semifinals 11 straight years.
"We've been here so many years, but it still feels like the first time," Patriots senior second baseman Kayla Gremel said. "It's still such a surreal experience. We don't take it for granted, that's for sure."
After a slow start, Unionville-Sebewaing heated up and rolled to a 12-3 victory over Morenci in the MHSAA Division 4 Semifinals on Friday at Michigan State University. The Patriots scored eight runs in the fifth and sixth innings after nursing a 4-3 lead through four.
The reigning champion Patriots (35-7) will now move on to their fourth straight championship game and eighth in 11 years against Indian River Inland Lakes (31-3) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at MSU's Secchia Stadium. Inland Lakes beat Holton, 2-0, in the other Semifinal.
Only four other programs have made the Softball Finals at least four years in a row. Bay City All Saints (1987-91) and Kalamazoo Christian (1996-2000) share the record of five consecutive trips to the Finals. Stevensville Lakeshore (1995-98) and Harper Woods Regina (2004-07) went four consecutive years.
Senior pitcher Nicole Bauer is the only member of the current team to reach four championship games. She will be the starting pitcher for the third year in a row. She played in 28 of the team's 39 games her freshman year, but none after the Districts.
Even Bauer notices a different feeling on the final weekend of the season.
"We had some butterflies, just being on the big stage," Bauer said in explaining the slow start. "We just didn't communicate, but we worked it out in the end. I'm a senior. It's my last time here. I just want to do what I can to help my team win."
Bauer helped Unionville-Sebewaing return to the Final by striking out eight and allowing six hits and no walks as a pitcher. As a batter, she went 2 for 3 with a team-leading three RBI.
"In the summer, I don't really hit, so I kind of lost my swinging," said Bauer, who has signed with Stanford University. "I just got it back."
Unionville-Sebewaing is counting on not only its big-game experience over the years, but its experience against tough competition this season to produce a second straight title.
The Patriots have played both Division 1 finalists, beating Macomb Dakota, 3-0, and losing to Farmington Hills Mercy, 12-5. They split with Division 3 finalist Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central and went 1-2 against Saginaw Swan Valley, the top-ranked team in Division 2.
"We've played against some really good teams who are still here," Patriots coach Steve Bohn said. "We've been in those situations where we've been down 2-1 and have thrown some balls away and had to get some hits."
Unionville-Sebewaing is trying to become more than just a great small-school program. The Patriots lost in Division 3 Finals in 2013 and 2014 before winning in Division 4 last year.
"This season we played better competition, and we've done well against them," Bauer said. "It's so rewarding to play teams that are out of our division, like Division 1 and Division 2 teams."
The Patriots had to lean upon the experience of playing in tough games when Morenci took a 2-1 lead in the second inning on an infield single by Hannah Borton that scored Angela Davis and Mikayla Price.
In the bottom of the second, Bauer drove the ball to the base of the fence in left-center field with the bases loaded to score three runs, giving the Patriots a 4-2 lead.
Borton's third RBI of the game came on a single in the fourth, getting Morenci within 4-3.
The Patriots gave themselves some breathing room with a three-run fifth. The runs scored on a bloop single to center field by Marisa Morton, Alexis Cady's steal of home on a double steal and a single by Brianna Osantowski.
The rout was on in the sixth, as Unionville-Sebewaing put up five more runs. The highlight was a two-run double by Cady.
"I looked halfway through the game," said 44th-year coach Kay Johnson, who coached Morenci to back-to-back Class C championships in 1985 and 1986. "They had a lot of two-out runs. We were just that close."
In contrast to Unionville-Sebewaing, Morenci hadn't played in a Semifinal since 1994. The Bulldogs (25-15) may not have to wait that long to make a return visit, as their starting lineup had three freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and one senior. Morenci has reached the Quarterfinals three consecutive years.
"It's good to have the experience here," Johnson said. "Even being in the Quarterfinals three years in a row, we weren't afraid to be there. We were used to being there. It would be nice to bring them back again, and they can settle in."
Indian River Inland Lakes 2, Holton 0
Cloe Mallory had to make do without her favorite bat.
She did just fine.
Mallory's primary bat was ruled illegal before the game, as it failed to pass a compression test. Using her backup stick, she slammed a two-run homer over the right-center field fence in the first inning to produce the game's only runs. Precious Delos Santos was on base after getting hit by a pitch.
"I had to switch to my old bat," said Mallory, a junior who is a Central Michigan University commit. "I was just so thankful I could mentally get through that. They (test) because it's states. I tried blocking it out as much as I could."
Mallory made the lead hold up, as she pitched a two-hitter and struck out 13, while not allowing a runner to pass second base. She couldn't have asked for a better start, striking out the side in the top of the first, then producing a two-run bomb in the bottom of the inning.
Holton coach Kirk Younts had pitcher Mikaela Baker intentionally walk Mallory the next two times she came to the plate, even loading the bases with two outs in the fifth.
"I wish I'd have done that the first time, but you've got to go after it a little bit," Younts said. "She single-handedly beat us. She had their runs and struck us out a bunch. She was on, and she's a great player."
Baker also pitched a two-hitter, walking four. Mallory had three walks.
It's only the second time than Inland Lakes has reached an MHSAA championship game in any sport. The 1998 baseball team lost to Southgate Aquinas, 9-3, in the Division 4 title game.
PHOTOS: (Top) Unionville-Sebewaing’s Rylee Zimmer touches third base ahead of a throw Friday. (Middle) Cloe Mallory prepares to fire a pitch for Indian River Inland Lakes during its Division 4 Semifinal win.
Owosso’s Macy Irelan earned 11 entries in the MHSAA record book over her three-year varsity career that came to a close last spring, most notably with her 1,157 strikeouts despite the 2020 season being canceled due to COVID-19.
Irelan’s career strikeouts were the second-most in the state since the pitching distance was lengthened three feet in 2011. She finished 31-7 last spring with a 1.43 ERA and 414 strikeouts in 229 2/3 innings in earning the Miss Softball Award for pitching.
She also hit .551 with 21 doubles last season, and her 55 career doubles over 117 games and three seasons made that category career list. She’s continuing her career at Kent State.
See below for more recent additions to the softball record book:
Unionville-Sebewaing’s dominating run to the 2021 Division 4 championship was filled with seven record book-worthy highlights, including many near the top of all-time lists. In going 40-3, the Patriots tied their season record for wins for the second time. Their 502 runs scored ranked third all-time, with their 493 hits tied for ninth, their 114 doubles second, their 49 home runs also tied for ninth, their 431 RBI also second and their 503 strikeouts thrown ranking third. Senior Brynn Polega completed her career with 13 record book entries despite her junior season being canceled because of COVID-19; she added listings for 71 runs, 79 hits, a third-best 28 doubles, 11 homers, 70 RBI, four perfect games pitching and 365 strikeouts, among others. Then-junior Laci Harris made lists with 77 runs, 83 hits, 22 doubles, 14 homers and 78 RBI, while then-junior Macy Reinhardt was added for 78 runs and then-freshman Gabriella Crumm was added for 16 doubles. Polega, Harris and Reinhardt also posted entries for single-game accomplishments. Polega is playing at Northwood and Harris at Madonna.
Big Rapids set a school record for wins in 2021 in finishing 34-7, a run which included a number of accomplishments that reached the record book. The Cardinals scored 439 runs – tied for 12th on that list – and also as a team were added for 428 hits, 82 doubles and 363 RBI, which tied for 10th all-time. Marissa Warren made the individual hits list with 71, while Hanna Smith earned an entry with 20 doubles and Rylie Haist followed with 19. Josie Cornell was added with 40 walks drawn. Warren, Smith and Haist were added for single-game accomplishments as well, as was Madison Affer from a 2019 game. Haist, Smith and Cornell are seniors this school year, and Warren is a junior. Smith has signed with Ferris State.
A pair of Bad Axe standouts earned record book entries in 2021 with their work at the plate. Haley Newland made the single-season doubles list with 19, and Brooke Messing was added for seven RBI in a game that saw her hit a grand slam and three-run homer. Newland graduated last spring and Messing is a senior this school year.
Montrose then-freshman Lainey Cannon made two record book lists with her performance April 25 against Montrose. She hit three home runs to make the single-game list in that category, and also made the single-game RBI list with eight.
Capac then-sophomore Madalyn Roberson made the record book three times with her performance May 9 against Brown City. She hit two home runs in back-to-back at bats, both during the fifth inning, and also drove in six runs for the game.
Spring Lake standouts now fill the record book after the addition of 55 individual and 23 team entries dating back to the 2000 season. Among listings ranking highest in their respective categories were Madelyn Nelson’s 81 runs in 2018, which tied for seventh all-time; Nelson’s 250 career runs from 2015-18) that rank seventh and Lauren Hellman’s 249 career runs also from 2015-18 that rank eighth on that list; Nelson’s 84 hits in 2018 that are tied for 12th-most all-time and her 264 career hits that rank 11th, Leah Vaughan’s 26 doubles in 2019 that rank seventh, Evie Lorimer’s 16 triples in 2011 that are tied for eighth and her 37 career triples from 2010-12 that are ranked fourth, Vaughan’s 23 career times being hit by pitch from 2016-19 which rank second, and Lorimer’s 92 stolen bases in 2012 that rank second (with all 92 coming consecutively to tie for fifth on that list) and 183 career steals that rank 11th. As a team, Spring Lake in 2017 ranked seventh all-time with 501 hits over 42 games, fourth with 109 doubles and eighth with 34 triples. The 2018 team ranks 11th with 441 runs scored over 41 games, 10th with 497 hits and tied for ninth with 100 doubles. Valerie Alter, Linsey Paggeot, Jenna Core, Molly Poole, Alicia Mumby, Leah Anton, Ann Marie Galloway and Rachael Adams also earned individual entries. Nelson went on to play at Grand Valley State, Vaughan plays at Aquinas College, Lorimer played at Central Michigan, Alter played at Jacksonville University (Fla.), Poole plays at Cornerstone University and Mumby played at Lansing Community College. Core plays volleyball at Hope College.
Freeland’s offense earned five record book entries during the team’s 26-12 season in 2022, including for 412 runs scored, 442 hits, 78 doubles, 336 RBI and a .400 team batting average. Three individuals also earned entries – sophomore Addie Steffen for a 20-game hitting streak and seven RBI in a game, junior Evelynn Rybicki for six RBI in a game and freshman Brynn Jaime for getting hit by a pitch twice in the same inning.
Chloe Parker hit .604 last spring and made the records with 20 doubles over 33 games for Niles Brandywine. She’s a junior this school year.
A series of record book entries were added for past and present Zeeland West standouts. Carly Sleeman was added for 73 runs, 75 hits, 27 doubles and 12 home runs in 2021 as a sophomore, while Lily Brower was added for 72 runs, 17 triples and 11 homers, plus 38 doubles and 29 triples over a four-year varsity career. Sleeman’s 27 doubles are tied for fifth-most in one season, and Brower’s 17 triples are tied for fourth on that list. Haley Hoogenraad was added for 70 hits and 17 doubles as a junior in 2015, 19 doubles as a senior, and 49 doubles and 24 triples over her four-year career from 2013-16. Kenzie Siersma was added for 17 doubles in 2017 and 54 over her career from 2016-19, while Courtney Sleeman made the season home runs list with 15 in 2015 and Sarah VanValkenburg made the career RBI list with 152 from 2014-17. Emily Brands was added for hitting consecutive home runs in the same inning, May 7 against Reese; she graduated this spring. Hoogenraad went on to play at University of Michigan, Courtney Sleeman played at Western Michigan, Siersma plays at West Virginia Tech, Brower played last season at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Carly Sleeman has signed with Central Michigan.
PHOTO Owosso’s Macy Irelan unloads a pitch during the 2021 Division 2 Final.