Participation in spring sports, following a similar decline in student-aged population in Michigan, has been on a decline statewide over the last decade.
But while some like baseball have experienced a slight bounce-back over the last few seasons, softball in particular has seen its numbers continue to fall.
Coaches and administrators in the Detroit area point to a number of factors intertwined that produced a snowball-like effect – and now it seems to have come to a head.
Three softball programs in the Catholic League Central, a division that competes at a high level statewide, don’t have sufficient numbers to field a junior varsity this spring. Many programs don’t sponsor freshmen teams for the same reason.
But for schools like Birmingham Marian, Farmington Hills Mercy and Livonia Ladywood not to have a junior varsity softball team is quite shocking to some – especially considering that Mercy enters this season ranked No. 3 in Division 1 and Ladywood is No. 2 in Division 2.
Marian athletic director Dave Feldman isn’t among those stunned. He saw this coming. Feldman points to the 2007-08 school year when the Michigan High School Athletic Association was forced, by court decision, to switch the volleyball season from the winter to the fall and the girls basketball season from the fall to the winter.
Feldman has a daughter, a freshman at Marian, who participated on the junior varsity volleyball team this fall. When that season was over she joined a club volleyball team. Feldman said the club volleyball season begins in December and continues on into June.
“It’s not AAU,” Feldman said. “But you need to be an AAU member (to play). They play all of the time. Heck, they played on Easter Sunday. And every club is filled.”
The pressure on athletes to play year-round is arguably greater now than it ever has been, and can come from coaches, peers and family – based on a frequent misconception that if athletes want to earn a scholarship, they better keep up with the Joneses or be left behind.
Feldman said he’ll back his daughter with whatever decision she makes. If she wants to play volleyball nine or 10 months a year, he’ll support that. But Feldman said, financially, it’s getting out of hand. He estimated between the cost of airfare, hotels and meals that he’ll spend $6,500 in support of his daughter playing club volleyball.
And, according to Feldman, the increase in attention on volleyball is affecting participation in other sports.
“(Girls) basketball is fighting for its life,” he said. “Our field hockey program (a fall sport) is fine. Our lacrosse teams are fine.
“We have 15 playing volleyball at all three levels. We had 16 (total) try out for softball and we made two cuts. We haven’t had a JV the last two years. The last time we had a freshman (softball) team was in 2004 or 2005. The last few years the numbers have dropped off. It’s the specialization.”
Simply signs of change?
Warren Regina is another member of the Catholic League Central. Regina athletic director Diane Laffey also is the head coach for softball and basketball, and she said she thinks lacrosse has drawn some athletes away from softball – which makes sense, although the total number of girls playing high school lacrosse in Michigan has increased only about 1,000 over the last decade, while softball participation is down 4,000 athletes over the same time.
One should not use Regina as an example of decline – Laffey’s team won the Division 1 championship last spring and fields a softball team at all three levels. At the same time, Regina also has seen a rise in participation in lacrosse. There are 18 playing for both the varsity and junior varsity this spring, the highest participation in school history.
Mercy varsity softball coach Alec Lesko said, simply, that times have changed. Mercy reached the Division 1 Semifinals last season, just as Ladywood did in Division 2 the year before – yet despite this success, Mercy’s number of softball players also has declined.
“(The students) have many more options,” Lesko said. “In addition to their school work there’s band, theatre, honors society clubs. In the past kids would play three sports and be in the band. All of my daughters were multi-sport athletes. By their sophomore year they had to make a decision (on which sport they would concentrate).
“It’s also economics. They want to earn a scholarship. You hear horror stories about (the cost of) student loans. Even the big schools have trouble getting the (students to play softball).
“As far as college, and I can only speak about softball, the Big Ten coaches want the player they recruit to play other sports,” Lesko added. “I hope to have a JV program next year. A player that misses 30 JV games, we will feel that crunch later. There are those who think JV softball is a waste of time, that you should just compete in travel (during the summer). We will get some of those kids. Those who compete in travel then come to us as sophomores.”
Reasons for optimism
Don Peters is the softball coach at Clarkston, and between coaching travel and at the high school level he’s put in 35 years. He coached travel before taking over the Clarkston program. Peters said the two complement each another, or at least they should.
“I know some disagree,” he said. “The girls have a lot of choices in the spring. Look at all of the sports they can play. I don’t think lacrosse has cut into the numbers. Not yet, but it’s probably going to. We haven’t been affected. We have 45 (covering three teams) in our program. We really push softball in our community because it’s been established.”
Peters said coaches in softball and baseball need to make the game enjoyable, and one way is to reward those who chose to participate by playing them on a regular basis. A student who is No. 14 or 15 on a squad often will play once a week and, with all of the options available, isn’t willing to put in the practice time for limited game action.
Mercy senior first baseman Abby Krzywiecki played a variety of sports before her freshman year. It was then she decided that softball would be her main sport and she chose to pour all of her energy into it.
She said it’s not all gloom and doom for her sport.
“We had a small freshmen class (last year),” she said. “When I came in we had a large class. It was one of the biggest. It’s not that we’re not getting softball players. In the travel world, it’s becoming more intense. We have more younger people playing. The sport is getting more intense. The talent level is getting higher.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) A Farmington Hills Mercy hitters prepares to connect during last season's Division 1 Semifinal against Caledonia. (Middle) Warren Regina coach Diane Laffey hoists her team's championship trophy after the Saddlelites downed Caledonia in the Final last spring.
Evart was added to the MHSAA softball record book 23 times for achievements during an outstanding three-season run that has included a Division 3 runner-up finish in 2022.
Then-junior Katelyn Gostlin twice was included for hitting streaks, of 26 straight games during the 2022 season and 22 straight this past spring. She also was added for 23 doubles in 2022, and then-senior Addysen Gray was added for 16 doubles in 2023. Ally Theunick was added for 11 home runs this spring and 23 over her first three seasons with one more to play. Gostlin, Theunick and 2021 graduate Ryenn Baumgardner all were added for single-game accomplishments.
Among team record listings, Evart had 405 hits, 419 runs, 85 doubles, 35 home runs and 328 RBI over 39 games this spring. Gostlin has signed with Mid-Michigan College, and Gray is playing softball and basketball there this school year.
See below for more recent additions to the MHSAA softball record book:
Olivia Mikowski followed up her Maple City Glen Lake team’s Division 4 basketball championship in March with a national record this spring on the diamond. She tied the MHSAA and national records with 20 triples, over 35 games, among five record book entries she earned. She also is listed for 74 RBI this past season, while now-junior Jessie Pugh earned a listing with 66 runs scored over 37 games. Mikowski is continuing at Schoolcraft College.
Essexville Garber finished a combined 71-14 over the last two seasons and reached the Division 2 Semifinals in 2022 after winning its first Regional title since 1997, along the way achieving several record book performances for both team and individual lists. The Dukes hit 53 home runs over 41 games this past spring, tying for sixth most as senior Sarah Basket set a program record and made the individual list with 12. Basket also was added for 21 doubles in 2022, with Laney Kokaly making the doubles list that season with 16 and Ella Wagner making it was 16 this past season. Kortney Kotenko set the previous Garber home run record in 2022, making the record book list with 11. All four were seniors in 2023. Kotenko is continuing at Madonna, while Basket is playing at Lawrence Tech and Wagner at Northwood. Kokaly is playing volleyball at Northwood.
Three Rivers and now-senior Ava Forman made the single-season hits list with 75 over 41 games and the single-season doubles list for 22 last spring and also 18 over 40 games as a sophomore. Three Rivers as a team made the records for 423 hits, 101 doubles and 277 RBI over 42 games in 2023.
Armada’s Taylor Capozzo had 19 doubles in 2023 to make that single-season list, plus hit back-to-back home runs in a game against Yale, and Natalie Sauer drove in six runs in a game against Brown City. Capozzo is a sophomore this school year, and Sauer graduated in the spring and is continuing at St. Clair County Community College.
Schoolcraft’s Lauren Evans hit 31 doubles in 2023 as a junior, the second-most in MHSAA history, as the Eagles totaled 118 over 41 games – also the second-most doubles on the team list. Schoolcraft also made record lists for 436 hits and 316 RBI for the season and five home runs in a game against Battle Creek Pennfield (which included back-to-back homers by Evans). Teammate Sydney Drenth, then a sophomore, made the doubles list with 22, and senior Alayna Meade made the same list with 16. Meade is continuing at Cornerstone, and Evans has committed to sign with Saginaw Valley State.
Farmington Hills Mercy finished 29-1 in 2023, earning four record book entries along the way. The Marlins tied for second-fewest runs allowed, giving up only 16. They also made lists for 11 consecutive shutouts, 385 strikeouts and a .435 average and just missed the single-season shutouts list with 23.
Unionville-Sebewaing’s 2022 Division 4 championship season produced another series of record book-worthy accomplishments. As a team, USA set an MHSAA record with 128 doubles over 40 games and was fourth on the team RBI list with 391, while also earning entries with 44 runs scored, 485 hits and 48 home runs. Individually, then-sophomore Gabriella Crumm was added for 80 hits, 21 doubles and 11 home runs, and then-senior Laci Harris was added for 11 home runs as well plus 72 hits, 19 doubles and career totals of 31 home runs, 170 RBI, 170 runs scored and 51 doubles over 123 games despite her sophomore season of 2020 being canceled due to COVID-19. Then-junior Oliva Jubar was added for 18 doubles, and then-sophomore Ella Neumann was added for 17. Harris is continuing her career at Madonna.
Paige Ratliff finished her Battle Creek Lakeview career in the spring with 10 record book entries across a variety of categories. Most notably, she totaled 37 doubles, 30 home runs and a .520 career average over three seasons and 108 games. She’s continuing at Lake Forest College (Ill.).
Hudson then-freshman Taylor Kopin opened her high school career in the spring by scoring 65 runs to make the individual record book. In doing so, she also helped Hudson make the team record book list with 417 runs scored over 39 games.
Haslett’s Payden Whitmore earned her school’s first softball record book entry since 2007 by hitting 12 triples over 38 games in the spring. She’s a junior this school year.
Mancelona has a pair of softball players who reached career lists last season with more to play. Now-senior Ella Jones was added for 20 doubles as a sophomore in 2022 and 19 this spring, and made the career doubles list with 39 and a season to play. Now-junior Ella Schram was added for her 13 triples as a freshman and .650 average this spring, and she’s on the career triples list with 23 and will qualify for the career average list if she keeps hitting at this pace over her next seasons.
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart hit the second-most triples in MHSAA history on the way to the Division 4 Semifinals in the spring. The Irish piled up 48 over 43 games, led by freshman Mairin Wheaton, who hit 12 over 42, respectively.
Reed City made the team record lists with 78 doubles and 252 RBI over 39 games in the spring, and a pair of standouts also were added. Morgan Hammond, then a freshman, and then-sophomore Paityn Enos both were added for single-game RBI, plus Enos was added for 72 hits and 20 doubles and Hammond was added for 22 doubles.
Manton now-junior Adriana Sackett earned her first record book listings in the spring. Twice she hit back-to-back home runs in games, and she also was added for 11 homers total over 26 games.
A trio of Ravenna standouts put up a series of record book-caliber totals over the last two seasons, including some of the highest-ranking all time. Emma Gillard graduated in the spring with nine record book entries, including for 85 runs (fourth most) and 13 triples (tied for 20th) this past season, and she made career lists with 200 runs, 27 triples and a .532 average over 111 games and three years. Emma Herremans is just a junior but has 11 record book listings after two seasons including for 25 doubles (11th-most) as a freshman in 2022 and a .652 average and 73 RBI this past spring, and she’s already on career lists for doubles and triples. Kara Postema graduated this spring with six record book entries, including season and career records for times hit by pitch (23 and 49, respectively), and she also made career lists with 36 doubles and 153 RBI over 111 games and three seasons. Gillard is continuing at Ferris State and Postema at Cornerstone.
PHOTO Evart's Riley Brigham connects during her team's Division 3 Final against Millington in 2022.