Hopeful Rogers City Rooted in Tradition

June 1, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

ROGERS CITY – When the Rogers City bus rolled into town following a 2013 MHSAA Division 4 Softball Quarterfinal win in Traverse City, it made an impromptu stop.

“The bus went down to the Little League fields,” varsity coach Karl Grambau recalled. “They stopped the games, and all the Little Leaguers lined up and cheered the girls on. It made you tear up because you know all those kids out there on the Little League fields are hoping that one day they will be on that bus coming back with a championship.”

It’s a memory that’s still vivid and holds special meaning for Grambau, who has built one of the most successful programs in the state. The Hurons are 223-46 since 2012.

On Saturday, top-ranked Rogers City opens District play by hosting Johannesburg-Lewiston. Posen and Hillman square off in the other bracket. The Hurons, 25-4, are seeking their seventh consecutive District crown.

“We need to focus on our game and not worry about anyone else,” third baseman Hannah Fleming said. “If we do that, we’ll be OK. We know what we’re capable of, and it’s our job to show everybody else.”

Rogers City reached the Division 4 Semifinals in 2013, losing to Kalamazoo Christian 2-0, and then came back in 2014 and won the title in a rematch with Christian, 3-2 in the championship game.

Reigning champion Indian River Inland Lakes has knocked the Hurons out of the tournament the last three seasons, twice in the Quarterfinals.

“We have the ability to make it to the Final Four,” shortstop Kayla Rabeau said. “We have a strong team.”

Grambau knows it will not be easy. There are no guarantees. In 2005, after a Division 4 runner-up finish the previous year, Rogers City was ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll but lost in the Pre-District.

“I’ll never forget that,” Grambau said. “When I got home (after the Pre-District loss), the final rankings had just come out and there we were, No. 1 and already out (of the tournament).”

Grambau believes this team compares favorably to the 2014 championship squad. He returned seven position players off a 34-6 team, including four all-staters – Rabeau (hitting .500), Hannah Fleming (.429), pitcher Jayna Hance (.495) and first baseman Taylor Fleming (.542). They are the first four hitters in the lineup and lead the team in just about every statistical category. Hance, a junior who has verbally committed to Northwood University, is 11-3 on the mound. Sophomore Kyrsten Altman is 13-1.

“They are the glue,” Grambau said.

The four were also standouts on the school’s volleyball team, which reached the Class D Semifinals for a second consecutive year, and the basketball team, which won its first District title since 2001. The Hurons reached the Regional Finals before losing to Bellaire in overtime.

“It’s been overwhelming, really,” Hannah Fleming said. “You always hope for that type of success, but not a lot of teams get to experience this. I’m humbled and excited to have had this experience my senior year. We have girls who are really dedicated and who will do whatever it takes.”

“It’s been an amazing year,” Rabeau added. “Fun times.”

The Hurons are hoping the fun lasts a few more weeks. This is a tight-knit softball team that came up through the Little League ranks, followed by years of travel ball.

“We all play travel ball together,” Rabeau said. “We’re always together as a team. We’re dedicated to softball. That’s what makes us good.”

Classmates Rabeau and Hannah Fleming share much in common. The honor students played on varsity as freshmen in 2015. Hannah was at second that season because her older sister, Logan, now playing at Ferris State, was at third. Like now, she and Rabeau followed each other in the batting lineup.

“When Hannah hit her first home run (as a freshman), I hit my first right after it,” Rabeau said.

A year ago, the two shared the JoLen Flewelling Award, given to a junior who “shows great determination, dedication and sportsmanship.”

This season, Rabeau, who will play softball next at Mott Community College, was named the school’s Female Athlete of the Year.

“My mouth dropped,” she said after learning of the award. “When they were talking about me, I teared up. It’s been a dream of mine.”

Fleming, who will play softball at Alma College, was the North Star League’s Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She also received the Judy Paradise Award, given to a Rogers City senior athlete for outstanding sportsmanship and athletic ability. Fleming, a 3.88 student, is the senior class salutatorian.

“When the coaches explained how much (the award) means to them and the community, I felt truly blessed to represent Judy and Rogers City in that way,” she said.

There are only four seniors on the roster. In addition to Rabeau and Fleming, Jazmyn Saile is the designated player (.378 batting average) while Jordyn Schalk (.273) shares leftfield with junior Alissa Bowden (.316). Fleming and Altman (.290) rotate at second when not pitching. Junior Amanda Wirgau (.369) is the catcher while junior Linnea Hentkowski (.289) plays right. Freshmen Kristin Brege (.315) roams center, the same position her sister Cassie played on the 2014 title team. Kristin is the fifth Brege to play on varsity. Junior Brooke Daniels lends support at first.

“It’s a total team effort,” Grambau declared. “We get contributions from everybody.”

That was evident last Saturday in a tournament at Ogemaw Heights. Trailing Linden in the final inning, Rogers City had two on and two out when Catherine Hart (.342), Saile and Bowden delivered RBI singles to give the Hurons a 7-6 victory.

“A good way to finish the day in 90-degree heat,” Grambau said.

It was also a microcosm of how this team operates – one player picking up the next.

“Our girls battle, work hard and play with confidence,” Grambau said. “They always believe they will win. It’s a cohesive team. They support one another. And they liked to be challenged.”

Rogers City started softball in 1984 when Jerry Chrzan, Paradise and Grambau arranged a bottle drive to gather funding. Chrzan was the first coach, and he led the Hurons for 11 seasons. Charlie Fairbanks took over in 1995 and coached until 2002. He led the Hurons to a Division 3 runner-up finish in 2001. Grambau succeeded Fairbanks and in his second season guided the “Cardiac Kids” to another runner-up finish, in Division 4.

“We called that team the Cardiac Kids because we won almost all our (tournament) games by one run or in extra innings,” Grambau said.

That run started with a 1-0 Pre-District win over a good Posen squad and included a 3-2 comeback victory over Vandercook Lake in the Semifinals when Ashley Fleming belted a three-run homer in the sixth inning. The Hurons eventually lost to Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes in the Final.

In addition to six consecutive District crowns, Rogers City has captured four Regionals since 2012.

As for the keys to success, Grambau credits his dedicated players, volunteer assistants (Duane Pitts and Mike Bowden), a philosophy of keeping the sport fun for the girls and “tremendous” support from the community.

But at the core of the success is the Little League program.

“We’ve always had a solid Little League program, and that’s why we’ve had such a strong high school program,” Grambau acknowledged. “Without the Little League program, we would never have the program we have now.”

That’s why that stop at the Little League fields in 2013 was so meaningful to Grambau. It ranks as one of his two special moments in coaching.

The other, of course, is the state championship.

“These girls talk about that (title),” Grambau said. “They were there to see some of the games and the celebration (afterwards). They would like to experience that, too.”

He’ll take a battle-tested team into play Saturday. On Sunday, his seniors will graduate – making it an opportunity for a full weekend of celebrations.

“I’m happy to play at home,” he said. “We play well on our home field. We play with extra confidence. I’ll tell the girls it’s just another game of softball, but at the same time you know there’s a lot on the line.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Rogers City shortstop Kayla Rabeau, right, and coach Karl Grambau share a joyful moment. (Below) Hannah Fleming rounds second base and heads for third after a throw gets through to the outfield. (Below) Taylor Fleming follows one of her shots this season. (Photos by Richard Lamb/Presque Isle County Advance.)

Grass Lake Slugger Turner Writing Name All Over MHSAA Record Book

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

May 7, 2024

Bill and Julia Turner have not only put in a lot of miles on the road, but they’ve also put a lot of miles in on the softball field.

Greater DetroitBefore Olivia Turner was hitting the cover off the ball and becoming Michigan’s career RBI leader for the Grass Lake softball team, Bill and Julia were taking her to the field for batting practice.

“I always wanted to go to the field, and my dad would take me and my mom would shag balls in the outfield,” Olivia said. “They’ve spent countless hours, especially traveling around the country. They’ve been my biggest support system. They are awesome.”

Her Warriors teammates are grateful, too. Last week Turner became Michigan’s all-time leader in runs batted in, surpassing Taylor Light & Life Christian’s Kelly Kennedy, who held the record with 304 RBIs from 1991-94.

“It was crazy to think I beat a 30-year-old record,” Turner said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I’m just super thankful.”

Having her name on the state record book for softball is nothing new to Turner. She barely missed the state mark for RBIs in a season last year when she had 102 and is the state’s all-time career doubles leader already.

Grass Lake head coach Roger Cook said Turner never talks about hitting home runs or driving in runs – just about being a teammate.

“I’m going to tell you, she’s one of the most modest people you’ll ever talk to,” Cook said. “She just talks team, team, team. She always has since I’ve known her. She has never said one thing about a home run or a base hit.”

Turner, who plays third base, has been around the Grass Lake program for a long time. When her sister Madeline was playing for the Warriors before heading off to play at Findlay University in Ohio, Olivia would tag along.

“I just wanted to be at the field, be around softball,” she said.

Turner first picked up the game when she was on an 8-and-under team.

“I fell in love with it,” she said.

Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records.She started as a pitcher, but quickly converted to infielder, where she has played with Grass Lake and various travel teams. She also plays volleyball and basketball for Grass Lake, but softball is her sport.

“We’re all one family,” she said. “I love that you get to play with girls that you may not be friends with at school. It shows you who you are. Softball gives you a lot of life lessons – dedication, teamwork, how to work with others.”

She loves to hit, too.

“Every at-bat, even if there is no one on base, I want to get on base,” she said. “I’m always going up to the plate doing it for my team, not for myself. The RBIs are pretty cool. My team gets on base for me. All of the girls are phenomenal.”

Cook said he sometimes gets worried that opponents will just pitch around Turner. But because of who is in the lineup in front of and behind her, he doesn’t have to worry about that.

“We have Rylee Fitzpatrick, Emily Brown, then Olivia,” Cook said. “After Olivia we have (junior) Bree Salts, who has committed to Central Michigan. It’s hard to pitch around her. When we get to some of these big games, teams will have to throw to her.”

Last year’s Division 3 runner-up Ottawa Lake Whiteford has faced Grass Lake multiple times over the past couple of seasons, and coach Matt VanBrandt is plenty familiar with the damage Turner can do.

"You'd better have a plan when you are pitching to her,” VanBrandt said. “She’s a dangerous hitter. She’s someone you need to think about before the game starts.”

Turner hit .714 last season with 30 doubles and those 102 runs batted in. For her career, she’s belted 48 home runs and knocked in 309 runs after Saturday’s tournament. She’s never hit below .535 for a season and is nearing 100 career doubles.

Grass Lake currently is 22-1 and leading the Cascades Conference.

“It’s crazy to think I am actually a senior now,” Turner said. “Now that it is my senior year, I just want to work hard and play for my team. We’ve had great seniors the last couple of years. It’s crazy to think this is my last season.”

Turner will attend Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. She chose Bradley because of its nursing program.

“Academics has always been first for me,” she said. “I fell in love with the campus. It’s not too big or too small. The staff there is great.”

Before taking her swing to college, Grass Lake wants to make a deep tournament run this season. And the more games the Warriors play, the more RBIs Turner is likely to add to her record.

“Olivia has one of the smoothest, most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen,” Cook said. “She’s one of the girls you want up there at bat with the game on the line. She can do it all. If you need a single, she’ll get you a single. If you need a walk-off, she can do that, too.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Grass Lake’s Olivia Turner focuses on a pitch coming her way. (Middle) Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records. (Photos courtesy of Pictures by Marisa and the Grass Lake softball program.)