Grand Blanc Enjoying Every Minute of Softball Success

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

May 19, 2021

The Grand Blanc softball team has made having fun a priority this season.

Whether that’s led to more wins, or the wins have simply made having fun that much easier, one thing is clear: They’re connected, and the Bobcats are enjoying both in abundance.

“Our motto this year is finish, family and focus,” senior pitcher Kendall Klochack said. “We hit all three of those hard in practice, especially family. We’re like sisters, so if you see us having fun in any pictures, it’s because we truly enjoy being around one another.”

Grand Blanc is 24-1 on the season following a doubleheader sweep Monday of Mount Pleasant, and has risen to No. 2 in the Michigan High School Softball Coaches Association Division 1 rankings. 

“We’re having a blast,” Grand Blanc coach Jami Neubecker said. “We hit culture really hard right at the beginning. They came together as a team, and they’re having a good time. They trust and believe in one another, and they just have fun.”

Grand Blanc has big goals, led by playing during the final weekend of the season at Michigan State University. But the team is making a point to celebrate each victory, and perhaps more importantly, celebrate each other after every victory. 

After each game, players take part in a verbal bouquet, where they praise each other for everything from getting a big hit to keeping the scorebook. As players are shouted out, the coaching staff tosses them beads.

Grand Blanc softballBeyond that, three players receive a Gamechanger Chain -- a dollar sign necklace – for coming through for the team. They’re awarded each day by the players who had won the game before.

“We’ve done a variation of it for a while,” Neubecker said. “One of my first years coaching, I found this little figurine, it was a warrior princess with a sword and a shield that we gave out. There’s always been a rendition of it, we’ve just kind of taken it up a notch with the blinged-out chain. It’s to bring us together as a team and recognize what each other can contribute to the game, even during the loss. I’d rather they focus on the positive, and I like to promote what’s going well so more of it happens.”

With the beads, the message of positivity and teamwork is getting through, as freshman middle infielder Audrey Kranz said it’s shown her and her teammates that everyone is contributing to the victory, even by doing the smaller, often unnoticed things. 

And the fact that teammates are the ones giving the praise makes it even more meaningful.

“I would say it definitely means more coming from your teammates,” senior first baseman Rebecca Oetting said. “Especially when it’s something that other people don’t recognize but you did something that changed the game. When a teammate sees that, it’s even more special than when a coach does.”

Grand Blanc is doing plenty of the things that are usually noticed, as well, hitting over .400 as a team and dominating with pitching and defense.

Klochack, who has signed with Purdue, is leading the way in both areas, as she carried a .557 batting average into Monday’s games against Mount Pleasant, and has been nearly unhittable in the circle. Through 71 innings, she had allowed just 22 hits, four walks and one earned run while striking out 146. Her earned-run average sat at 0.099, as she had racked up 14 shutouts, three no-hitters and four one-hitters.

“It definitely helps a lot knowing we have someone that can pitch that well,” said Oetting, who has signed to play at Northwood. “Even if our bats aren’t going, we still have a chance to win with Kendall on the mound.”

Grand Blanc softballThe bats are typically going well, too, though. Sophomore Carson Kuhlmann (.524), junior Summer Brady (.471), sophomore Sydney Long (.470) and freshman Katelyn DeWitt (.468) are all hitting above .450 on the season, while Klochack (.622 on-base percentage), Kuhlmann (.592), DeWitt (.547), Brady (.526) and senior Annabelle Morningstar (.500) are getting on base in at least half of their plate appearances.

“There’s been times in the past where we’ve been in a really tight game and it feels like I can’t miss any pitches,” Klochack said. “But when you’re able to bat one through nine, you can open up some big leads. You can pitch a little looser when you have a big cushion. You’re able to pitch better knowing that your bats will come through.”

It’s the type of season the Bobcats thought was possible a year ago, as they were bringing back a strong group that had come off a stellar 2019 which ended with a walk-off loss in the Regional. So now that it’s happening, they’re enjoying every minute of it. 

“Missing last season was very heartbreaking,” Klochack said. “Especially because it was such a special and talented group of girls. But we’re trying not to focus on what could have been, because what’s in front of us is so bright and so special. You never really appreciate something until it’s gone, so this season, every single practice, it’s not that I have to go to practice today – it’s that I get to practice today. I get to see my teammates.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) From left: Annalise Anderson, Carson Kuhlmann and Rebecca Oetting show off the “Gamechanger Chains” they earned during a recent game. (Middle) The Bobcats enjoy a Slurpee run this spring. (Below) Focuses on fun and family atmosphere are driving Grand Blanc’s 24-1 start. (Photos courtesy of the Grand Blanc softball program.)

Schools Come Together to Help Coleman Trio Complete Dream Weekend

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

June 8, 2023

After teaming up to win a softball District title and an all-state track medal over a two-day stretch, Coleman juniors Madison Miller, Nevaeh Chaffee and Ava Gross had earned some time to relax.

Bay & Thumb“I was definitely relieved,” Chaffee said. “It felt good to be leaving the track meet with a medal, regardless of what place it was. But I definitely came home and took a fat nap.”

The trio was instrumental in leading the Comets to a Division 4 District softball title Friday, as they knocked off Farwell and Beal City.

A day later, they joined senior teammate Amber Nehrig to take fifth in the 400-meter relay at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Track & Field Finals in Hudsonville. 

‘It was fun just to be able to do both,” Gross said. “We worked so hard to play in both.”

All that hard work was almost for naught, and not because of anything any of the athletes had done. It took a lot of work behind the scenes from participating athletic departments and school districts to move the District softball tournament. And that wasn’t confirmed until eight days before it was played.

The tournament was originally scheduled for Saturday, and Coleman softball coach Chad Kopf had alerted his athletic director early that he would like it to be moved to avoid a conflict with the track Finals.

However, host Beal City had to work through multiple issues to make it work. Friday was the final day of exam prep for Beal City students, so administrators did not want to have them miss any of the school day. It was also field day for the elementary school, which was going to make parking at the school even more chaotic. On top of that, Beal City softball coach Jason Johnston is the elementary principal, meaning he would have to be present at the field day.

Athletic directors and superintendents were all involved to make it work, and eventually, a compromise was found. Coleman had offered to bus in all its fans to cut down on parking, and to swap the order of games, so Beal City and Marion – which also had a Finals-bound track athlete – could play the later game. 

It all added up to Miller, Chaffee and Gross – Coleman’s 1, 2 and 3 hitters, as well as its pitcher, shortstop and centerfielder – not having to choose between major events.

From left, Chaffee, Gross, Amber Nehrig and Miller take a relay photo together Saturday at the LP Division 4 Finals at Hudsonville’s Baldwin Middle School. “It makes you feel good,” Kopf said. “Coming off of COVID a couple years ago, you’re still in that mindset of, ‘Is everything that’s done right for the kids?’ (The collaborative effort to move the District) made it feel like we’re in it for the right reasons. Knowing that they made these exceptions, almost solely for us, that’s a lot of selflessness on the part of Beal City. It was great sportsmanship.”

The effort that went into moving the District wasn’t lost on the athletes, either.

“I was happy to know that people were actually trying to get us to do both, because obviously it’s an amazing experience,” Gross said. “Knowing they were putting in the work, that was really nice and thoughtful of them.”

There was, unfortunately, one more bump in the road – getting Gross and Chaffee healthy enough to compete.

Right before the decision to move the District was made, and just 10 days before it was contested, Chaffee took a thrown ball off the kneecap. A day later, Gross injured her ankle and foot long jumping. Neither was cleared until the day before the District tournament.

“We’ve been nursing injuries, nursing arms for about the last month,” said Kopf, who has just 11 players on his roster. “Once we knew we were out of the conference race, we had to save some bodies and be smart with how we practiced. Coming into Thursday, we were still waiting to hear if Nevaeh and Ava were going to be able to play. Both got cleared Thursday, and when (we) got on the bus Friday, that was probably the most focused group I’ve seen.”

Miller pitched a pair of complete games for the Comets in the District, getting a shutout against Farwell and striking out a total of 17 batters over the two games. She also had five hits. Gross had four hits on the day.

“It was very, very special,” Miller said. “Going into it, I wasn’t able to pitch more than one game. My arm had kind of let go, and I didn’t have anything left. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get us to where we needed to be. In the past couple years, I’ve noticed I throw a lot better in the heat, and we hadn’t really had many hot-weather games.”

The next day, the trio was on the track in Hudsonville. In addition to their relay, Miller competed in the long jump and the pole vault, while Chafee ran the 100 meters. She had qualified for the 200, but scratched to save herself for the relay.

They teamed with Nehrig to run a season-best time of 52.62 seconds in the second-to-last heat. They had to watch the final heat to see if they’d place.

“That heat was insane,” Miller said. “It was very insane. They had live timing and live results, so as soon as that heat was done we knew. It was almost immediate.”

Now, the girls can focus solely on softball as the Comets prepare for a Regional Semifinal on Saturday against Alcona at Carson City-Crystal.

But they hope that this weekend’s experience wasn’t once-in-a-lifetime, and they can repeat it a year from now. Without all the nervous moments beforehand, of course.

“I look forward to it, actually,” Chaffee said.

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) From left, Coleman’s Nevaeh Chaffee, Madison Miller and Ava Gross show their team’s District softball trophy won Friday at Beal City. (Middle) From left, Chaffee, Gross, Amber Nehrig and Miller take a relay photo together Saturday at the LP Division 4 Finals at Hudsonville’s Baldwin Middle School. (Photos courtesy of the Coleman athletic department.)