By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – A powder puff football game was not going to keep the Grandville softball team from making history this season.
Ellie Muilenburg made sure of that. The Bulldogs had big plans, but needed her to keep them.
Sporting a white head band, maroon hair bow and black plastic brace on her left knee, Muilenburg took the pitcher’s circle for Grandville’s first MHSAA Semifinal since 1982.
Less than a year after tearing a knee ligament, seven months after surgery to repair it and about 30 games after she returned to the circle, the Bulldogs’ senior ace allowed two hits and struck out nine in a 2-1 win over Clarkston at Secchia Stadium.
On Saturday, Grandville will play for its first MHSAA softball title.
“After my ACL injury, I thought it was going to be a really tough battle coming back, and it was. But I’ve come back stronger than I’ve played my whole career,” Muilenburg said.
“It was mentally, emotionally, physically draining. But I knew I could do it for my team. We’ve been saying since day one this was the state championship team. We knew we could make it.”
The Bulldogs (32-7), an honorable mention in the final regular-season poll, will face top-ranked Macomb Dakota (35-2) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Muilenburg also helped pitch Grandville to league and District titles last season and is a four-year varsity player. But she suffered a knee injury during a powder puff football game in the fall and had surgery just five months before her softball team’s first games of this spring.
“There were times when she’d go, ‘I’ll be back,’ and I’d go, we’ll see,” Grandville coach Troy Ungrey said. “Ten games in she said, ‘I’m testing it out next week.’ When she said she was ready to go, of course I said, ‘Yes!’”
Muilenburg did indeed return for the team’s 11th game, a 14-3 win over Holland West Ottawa where Ungrey noticed “she had a smile on her face like the first game she threw for us” freshman year.
With Thursday’s win, Muilenberg moved to 17-1 since her return. But a young Clarkston team nearly put Grandville’s good times to an end.
With only one senior on the roster, the Wolves (32-10) – also a rankings honorable mention – matched zeroes with the Bulldogs through five innings. Grandville scored its runs in the top of the sixth, both on errors. Clarkston came back in the bottom of the inning and loaded the bases, scoring on freshman Sierra Kersten’s sacrifice fly with two outs – but Muilenburg came back to get a swinging strikeout to end the rally. She also got the final out on strikes before being engulfed by her teammates.
“As a pitcher, it’s really a mental game. And so mentally, I just have to think I’m better than you – I’m going to get this; this is my game,” Muilenburg said. “And so I just turn around and throw how I do.”
She struck out nine and gave up only two hits, while Clarkston sophomore Olivia Warrington didn’t yield an earned run and struck out six while allowing four hits.
Macomb Dakota 6, Mattawan 3
Dakota was in a similar spot as Grandville last season, making a championship game for the first time before falling to Farmington Hills Mercy in the Final.
It’s been tough for the Cougars this spring to not look ahead to mid-June. But putting up four runs in the first inning Thursday provided a deserved reward for their self-discipline leading up to that point.
“All year, it’s been come back here, do work and stay focused,” Dakota junior centerfielder Olivia Patton said. “Each game, we knew that each inning counted and everything matters … (but) we knew that we wanted to come back here all season.”
Patton had one of the hits and scored the second run of that first-inning rally, which included senior first baseman Julia Salisbury driving in one, senior pitcher Kendahl Dunford doubling home two and sophomore catcher Sam DiCicco knocking in the fourth.
For the game, Patton, junior shortstop Corbin Hison and senior leftfielder Kattie Popko all had two hits. Patton’s second was a triple.
Fifth-ranked Mattawan (32-8) did get to Dunford for one run in the first inning and two in the third. But she retired the final 12 batters in order, giving herself and a number of contributors from last season another chance to win the program’s first title.
“The first time we were here was very nerve-wracking, and obviously it still is,” Patton said. “But knowing we can do it, and staying positive, is very helpful.”
Mattawan junior pitcher Emily Koperdak also had two hits and scored twice. Senior third baseman Joanna Bartz drove in two runs.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grandville's Ellie Muilenburg unloads a pitch during Thursday's first Division 1 Semifinal. (Middle) Dakota's Lauren Bobowski rounds third base on the way to scoring one of her team's six runs.
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.