Dakota, Mercy Set Up Top-Ranked Match-up

June 16, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

EAST LANSING — Kendahl Dunford started summer softball last year with a team that wasn't operating at full strength.

While Dunford was beginning her travel season, some of her teammates were still busy trying to win MHSAA championships with their high school teams.

Dunford's own postseason dreams with her Macomb Dakota team ended in the Pre-District round for the second straight year, despite a 30-6 regular-season record.

"It was not a good feeling," Dunford said. "We had some girls (from the summer team) who were still here. We were like, 'Wow, we could've really been here.' Now this year, being here, it's the best thing ever."

Dunford's high school season will extend to the last possible game after she pitched top-ranked Dakota to a 4-2 victory over Midland in the MHSAA Division 1 semifinals on Thursday at Michigan State University.

The Cougars (38-2), who hadn't won a District since 2000 and had never advanced beyond Regionals until this season, will face Farmington Hills Mercy at 10 a.m. Saturday for the Division 1 title at MSU's Secchia Stadium.

"It's surreal," senior second baseman Sarah Fringer said. "I never thought we were going to get here. We have such a great team. Not getting out of Districts the past couple years has been really tough. Finally being here is an amazing feeling."

It was Fringer who made the defensive play of the game to thwart Midland's final threat.

The Chemics (36-8) had runners on first and second with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, trailing 4-2. Nicole Miiller hit a grounder to the left of Fringer, who made a diving stop, got up and made the throw to first to end the inning.

"It was really huge," Fringer said. "They had runners on first and second with two outs. I was just trying to do anything I could to keep the ball in front of me and not let a run score. I just saw the ball coming and got it. It was a huge relief. We only had three more outs left after that. It was really a big confidence booster that we really had it. We really were going to get the win."

Fringer's play left Midland wondering what could have been.

"We squared it up quite a few times," Midland coach Robin Allen said. "Some of the times when we did, they made a nice play or it went right at them. If that second baseman doesn't make that diving play, that's a whole new ball game. It might have got in the gap. If that gets in the gap, we might have scored two there."

Against Dunford, teams don't get many opportunities to put runs on the board. She retired the Chemics in order in the seventh, ending the game with back-to-back strikeouts. Dunford had nine strikeouts total, allowing six hits and no walks.

Dunford, a junior who has verbally committed to Florida International, entered the game with five straight shutouts. She had allowed only one run over 37 innings in six tournament games, as Dakota outscored its opponents 53-1.

Dakota struck first when Kattie Popko doubled and scored on a single by Claire Hamlin in the second inning.

The Cougars built a cushion in the third, scoring three unearned runs. With one out and nobody on, Corbin Hison reached first base when third baseman Zoe Manary threw high to first base. With two outs, Kelcie LaTour singled home Hison to make it 2-0. After a single by Dunsford, Julia Salisbury stepped up and lined a double to the fence in left-center field to score two runs.

"I just imagine that I'm going to hit it out to left field," Salisbury said. "Before I bat, I look to left field and say, 'I'm driving it out there.' That's what I thought when I hit that."

Dunford's scoreless inning streak ended at 35 in the fourth inning, as Midland cut the Cougars' lead in half.

Pitcher Maya Kipfmiller singled with one out to begin the rally. Julia Gross then hit a ball that eluded the center fielder and rolled to the fence for a triple. Gross headed home when the throw to third was wild. It appeared she would be easily cut down at the plate, but the throw home sailed high.

"We had a little defensive hiccup there," Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. "I don't think we've made that many errors in the entire postseason. We got them out of the way on one play, so I guess that was a good thing. Defensively, we've been great all year."

Midland went down 1-2-3 in the fifth and seventh innings, failing to score in the sixth because of Fringer's diving stop and throw on the grounder by Miiller.

Dunford had two of Dakota's six hits off of Kipfmiller, who walked four batters, none of whom factored into the scoring.

Kipfmiller and Gross had two hits each for Midland.

"We have one senior," Allen said. "We're a young team, but they don't play like they're young. They all play like seniors. They've been around the program for a long time. It's a special season. It's something these girls will remember the rest of their lives. I'm really excited for them. It's memorable."

Click for the full box score

Farmington Hills Mercy 9, Mattawan 6

Cari Padula came just a foot or so away from hitting a grand slam down the right field line in the second inning. 

She had to settle for a three-run double to left after her long foul ball, but she isn't complaining. Padula's hit highlighted a five-run uprising that carried No. 2 Mercy (42-2) into the championship game for the second time in school history. The 2002 team lost in the Division 1 Final, 4-0 to Portage Northern.

"It would have been awesome if it went out," Padula said of the near-miss to right. "I just knew I needed to recoup. I took a deep breath. I have this little saying. I say, 'See ball, hit ball.' That's exactly what I did." 

Padula had a run-scoring single as part of a three-run sixth inning, giving her four RBI.

"I was really happy for Cari," Mercy coach Alec Lesko said. "Cari walked away from our last game thinking she didn't contribute enough, but she had a couple sac flies. Today she missed a grand slam by about a foot and came down the other line for a bases-emptying double. We're excited for her. She's a senior, and she's been a great leader. I'm glad she had a chance to do something big today." 

Fourth-ranked Mattawan (32-9) jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning before Mercy responded with the five-run second. After Mercy extended its lead to 6-2 in the third following a 54-minute rain delay, Mattawan cut the deficit to 6-5 with two runs in the third and one in the fifth.

Anna Dixon's second double and third hit of the game ignited a three-run sixth inning that gave Mercy some breathing room. Mattawan scored a run in the sixth, but couldn't get closer. 

"We gave up too many, but we fought hard and never gave up," Mattawan junior Joanna Bartz said. "We just tried to play our game and fell short."

Andrea Elmore allowed nine hits and struck out eight for Mercy. Shannon Gibbons was 3 for 4, nearly getting a fourth hit in the sixth, only to be denied by a diving catch by left fielder Sarah Hillsburg.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Macomb Dakota celebrates its first MHSAA Finals berth in softball. (Middle) A Farmington Hills Mercy runner rounds third base during her team's Semifinal win.

Game May Change, But Success Continues as Wilson Nears 800 Coaching Wins

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

April 16, 2024

SOUTH HAVEN — No dugouts, no outfield fences, $25 bats.

Southwest CorridorThings have come a long way since Wilma Wilson took over the coaching reins at her alma mater 35 years ago.

“When I played, we didn’t have fences, we didn’t have dugouts; we had benches,” the South Haven softball coach said. “If you hit a home run, it had to be an in-the-park home run because there were hardly any parks that had any fences.

“It’s come a long way. Now you go to fields that are turfed. I love it. I’m glad to see the change for the girls and to see more emphasis on them playing and being involved.”

With a 791-406 record over her 35 years coaching the Rams softball team, Wilson is closing in on 800 career wins. Her current record puts her 19th among MHSAA coaches and just 16 victories behind former Monroe coach Vince Rossi’s 807 victories.

The Rams are 2-2 on the young season, but started off with a bang — actually three bangs over the right field fence in a one-run squeaker against Paw Paw on March 26.

Although the team has just 11 players, it is stacked with experience. Nine players saw action last season, and the five seniors have three or four years of varsity time.

Those seniors include twins Kamryn and Taylor Holland.

Against Paw Paw, Kamryn hit her first grand slam, a walk-off homer in a 12-11 win.

The Rams enjoy watching Marlee Wilson’s Broncos this season. “I knew it was going to be close as soon as I saw it,” the third baseman said. “I just kept running and started jumping up and down when I saw it go over.”

She was one of the veterans instrumental in the team’s postseason play last year, as South Haven reached its Division 2 District Final before losing 6-2 to Hamilton.

The Rams are focused on a longer run this year.

“A lot of the girls have been on the same team, and we’ve played together the past three years,” Kamryn said. “We know enough about each other and work good together. Everything clicks.”

Her sister, a shortstop/pitcher, agrees she and her teammates already have solid connections and said Wilson is a big reason.

“I love how much she pushes me,” Taylor Holland said. “She’s always there when you need her. She’ll take you aside if you need anything and always wants us to be our best. I just love that about her, because she loves us on and off the field.”

Wilson does more than work on softball with the players.

“(Last week) I sat down with the girls and had a good heart-to-heart, working through frustrations, trying to help kids maneuver through things in life, whether at school, at home, in the game,” she said. 

“That’s a huge part of coaching and what keeps me in it, knowing I can make a difference helping these kids manage life a little bit.”

Continuing the legacy

One of Wilson’s former players who is still very involved in the sport is her daughter, Marlee Wilson, in her first season as Western Michigan University’s head softball coach.

The Broncos won their 20th game of the season Sunday, making Wilson WMU’s winningest first-year softball coach. 

Wilson, right, joins daughter Marlee to form an accomplished mother-daughter coaching tree. “I coached her when she was small, coached her through high school, coached her in travel ball,” Wilma Wilson said. “She’s a very competitive kid, plays really hard. She has that same love for the game that I do, same drive.”

Marlee Wilson said one important thing she learned from her mom was to make softball fun.

“Practices in high school were always really fun,” she remembered. “It was the best part of the day. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. (I want to) continue that and also develop the student athletes as people.

“There’s not a huge career in softball like there is in baseball and other sports, so you’re going to play four or five years in college then hopefully be prepared for life after sports, which (Mom) did a really good job with me.”

When she has a chance to talk with high school athletes, Marlee Wilson tells them to have fun and learn the basics of the game.

“That’s huge in high school,” she said. “At the college level, we can tell players who went through really good high school programs or travel programs that have those really good fundamentals or softball IQ.

“(Mom) does a really good job of developing players as a whole so when they get to that level, they understand that part of the game.”

Wilson played softball at WMU from 2014-18 and was a three-time academic all-Mid-American Conference honoree, a 2017 MAC Distinguished Scholar-Athlete and a four-time NFCA All-American Scholar.

Sparking like Sparky

Although Wilma Wilson calls him a “co-coach,” Dave Gumpert considers himself her assistant the last 11 years.

“I respect her many years as being a coach,” he said. “We talk things over, but she makes the final decisions.

“It’s been a really good relationship. She bounces things off me, I bounce things off her. It’s been a good run so far.”

Gumpert, who had a seven-year stint as a major league pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, is the one who good-naturedly calls Wilson “Sparky” and not because of her sparkling personality.

Myraql McGee settles in under a fly ball. “She pretty much lets me run practice, and she walks around,” he said, smiling. “I played for (Tigers manager) Sparky Anderson and that’s what he did. He walked around the outfield, just talking to people and doing all the PR stuff while all the other coaches were getting the work done. So I like to tease her.”

Equipment has been another area of change during Wilson’s tenure.

“The equipment has gone crazy from the technology of bats,” she said. “A bat back in the day would be $20, $25. Now they’re $400. 

“If take my school budget and buy balls for the season for both our (varsity and JV) teams and a bat, I’ve used two-thirds of my budget.”

But South Haven is making those bats work. Senior centerfielder Myraql McGee said hitting is among the team’s most noticeable improvements from a year ago.

“Our whole lineup is good power hitters. It doesn’t matter where you are, our lineup is pretty stacked,” said McGee, who will continue her career next season at Missouri Valley College.

“Fielding-wise, we could work on a couple things, but we don’t make as many errors at routine plays as many other teams.”

Other seniors are Sam Beeney and Kayley Gorham, and juniors are Madi Dotson, Grace Strebeck and Molly Verseput. Sophomores are Addison Dekoning and Erin Bos, and they are joined by freshman Ly’Nique Cunningham.

Gumpert was with Wilson when the Rams reached but lost in the Division 2 Final in 2018 and sees some similarities between that and this year’s team.

“Offensively, we had a good team, but I would dare to say this team is as good offensively as that team was,” he said. “It’s going to boil down to how well our pitching does, how well our pitchers progress. If we have the pitching I think we can develop into, I think we’ll be competitive with anybody.”

Pam ShebestPam 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) South Haven softball coach Wilma Wilson, right, welcomes home Kamryn Holland after Holland’s grand slam March 26. (2) The Rams enjoy watching Marlee Wilson’s Western Michigan Broncos this season. (2) Wilson, right, joins daughter Marlee to form an accomplished mother-daughter coaching tree. (4) South Haven senior Myraql McGee settles in under a fly ball. (Top and WMU photos provided by Wilma Wilson, family photo by Pam Shebest, and McGee action photo provided by McGee.)