By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
JENISON – The Jenison softball team wrapped up an Ottawa-Kent Conference Black outright title Tuesday night by sweeping Muskegon Reeths-Puffer.
The championship shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because the Wildcats have racked up wins at a consistent pace for the past 45 years.
Jenison has experienced another successful campaign thus far, and reached a program milestone earlier in the season.
The Wildcats notched the program’s 1,000th win by beating Zeeland East in mid-April.
Longtime coach Kari Kossen has been a part of several of those victories, as a former player and now in her 19th season at the helm.
“Our players had an idea, and it was told to them at the beginning of the season that it was coming up,” Kossen said. “We really didn’t make it known, but for us coaches and the whole program it was a really cool thing. They knew about it, but not enough to count it down.”
Jenison began as a program in 1974 and emerged as a perennial powerhouse during the late 1980s and mid 1990s.
Under the direction of legendary coach Jerry Hoag, who collected 529 wins from 1981-1999, the Wildcats won six MHSAA Class A titles over a nine-year span.
They’ve appeared in seven Finals, also including a runner-up finish to Okemos in 1999. Only five teams in MHSAA history have played in more.
Jenison stockpiled state crowns with superb pitching and defense, posting five shutouts in its six championship game wins and allowing only one run overall.
Back then, Georgetown Little League opened up a new facility and was the feeder program.
Kossen, a pitcher who helped the team win back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988, said pitching guru Ray Sheler had a huge impact in producing a dominant pitching staff.
“He taught the windmill (style),” Kossen said. “Slingshot was well known, but we learned from him and he taught us how to pitch like that and that played a big role in Jenison’s success, just learning how to do the windmill pitching. A lot of other schools didn’t know how to do it back then.”
The Wildcats continue to seek their first Finals appearance since 1999, but have continued to churn out quality players and competitive teams.
A change during the past eight years has been the development of the Wildcat Pride Program, and it has paid dividends on the diamond over the last four.
While various travel teams are abundant throughout the state and include players from different high schools, the Wildcat Pride program is designed to keep girls playing together on the same team in the Jenison community.
“The parent support has really helped with this and has helped make an impact in our success the last two or three years,” Kossen said. “It was something everybody had to buy into eight years ago.
“My sister (Karla Wojtas) and I had a vision to just play together as a community and see if we can learn how to win together, because eventually they’re going to have to do that anyway in high school. We just wanted to come back as a community, and parents have helped coach these teams.”
The idea is to have the girls playing together for several years and creating a bond and trust, much like what occurred in the past.
“We just played so well together because we played together since we were 10 years old,” Kossen said. “In today’s culture girls are playing for different teams, so it feels good to go back to that.”
Former Jenison standout Alexis Hylarides, a 1991 grad and member of the 1990 Class A championship team, said elite coaching in little league with the likes of Ed Kiscorni and Sheler, and then in high school with Hoag, helped catapult the program into a dynasty.
“It starts with good coaching and Ray Sheler took it to a whole other level because without him then they don’t have all those great pitchers,” she said. “The whole goal growing up was to play for Jenison softball because they were the dynamo, and if you played for them then you made it to the big show. It was an honor to play for them, and they don’t make coaches like that anymore.”
Hylarides wasn’t shocked to learn that the program had surpassed 1,000 wins.
“Not one bit,” she said. “This has been such a strong program for many years.”
Jenison produces elite talent as several girls have gone on to play at various levels in college, but fundamentals are the main focus of the current program.
“We’re scrappy, and we teach fundamentals,” Kossen said. “We do the little things that allow us to be that much better, and we do what we need to do to be in every ball game.”
The Wildcats improved to 30-3 with Tuesday’s wins and earned honorable mention in the latest Division 1 rankings.
Jenison has been led by seniors Evelyn Blood, Addison Hansen and Emily Mouat, juniors Kassidi Hill and Emily Siler and freshman Maria Griffore.
“I think we’ve been playing so well together as a group, and they know their roles,” Kossen said. “I can count on all of them to come in and get a hit when they need to or play good defense. They get along so well and are just fun. They want to win, and they have goals.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Jenison players huddle on the field during a game this season. (Middle) A Jenison base runner slides safely into third base. (Below) The Wildcats welcome a teammate crossing the plate. (Photos courtesy of the Jenison athletic department.)
Owosso’s Macy Irelan earned 11 entries in the MHSAA record book over her three-year varsity career that came to a close last spring, most notably with her 1,157 strikeouts despite the 2020 season being canceled due to COVID-19.
Irelan’s career strikeouts were the second-most in the state since the pitching distance was lengthened three feet in 2011. She finished 31-7 last spring with a 1.43 ERA and 414 strikeouts in 229 2/3 innings in earning the Miss Softball Award for pitching.
She also hit .551 with 21 doubles last season, and her 55 career doubles over 117 games and three seasons made that category career list. She’s continuing her career at Kent State.
See below for more recent additions to the softball record book:
Unionville-Sebewaing’s dominating run to the 2021 Division 4 championship was filled with seven record book-worthy highlights, including many near the top of all-time lists. In going 40-3, the Patriots tied their season record for wins for the second time. Their 502 runs scored ranked third all-time, with their 493 hits tied for ninth, their 114 doubles second, their 49 home runs also tied for ninth, their 431 RBI also second and their 503 strikeouts thrown ranking third. Senior Brynn Polega completed her career with 13 record book entries despite her junior season being canceled because of COVID-19; she added listings for 71 runs, 79 hits, a third-best 28 doubles, 11 homers, 70 RBI, four perfect games pitching and 365 strikeouts, among others. Then-junior Laci Harris made lists with 77 runs, 83 hits, 22 doubles, 14 homers and 78 RBI, while then-junior Macy Reinhardt was added for 78 runs and then-freshman Gabriella Crumm was added for 16 doubles. Polega, Harris and Reinhardt also posted entries for single-game accomplishments. Polega is playing at Northwood and Harris at Madonna.
Big Rapids set a school record for wins in 2021 in finishing 34-7, a run which included a number of accomplishments that reached the record book. The Cardinals scored 439 runs – tied for 12th on that list – and also as a team were added for 428 hits, 82 doubles and 363 RBI, which tied for 10th all-time. Marissa Warren made the individual hits list with 71, while Hanna Smith earned an entry with 20 doubles and Rylie Haist followed with 19. Josie Cornell was added with 40 walks drawn. Warren, Smith and Haist were added for single-game accomplishments as well, as was Madison Affer from a 2019 game. Haist, Smith and Cornell are seniors this school year, and Warren is a junior. Smith has signed with Ferris State.
A pair of Bad Axe standouts earned record book entries in 2021 with their work at the plate. Haley Newland made the single-season doubles list with 19, and Brooke Messing was added for seven RBI in a game that saw her hit a grand slam and three-run homer. Newland graduated last spring and Messing is a senior this school year.
Montrose then-freshman Lainey Cannon made two record book lists with her performance April 25 against Montrose. She hit three home runs to make the single-game list in that category, and also made the single-game RBI list with eight.
Capac then-sophomore Madalyn Roberson made the record book three times with her performance May 9 against Brown City. She hit two home runs in back-to-back at bats, both during the fifth inning, and also drove in six runs for the game.
Spring Lake standouts now fill the record book after the addition of 55 individual and 23 team entries dating back to the 2000 season. Among listings ranking highest in their respective categories were Madelyn Nelson’s 81 runs in 2018, which tied for seventh all-time; Nelson’s 250 career runs from 2015-18) that rank seventh and Lauren Hellman’s 249 career runs also from 2015-18 that rank eighth on that list; Nelson’s 84 hits in 2018 that are tied for 12th-most all-time and her 264 career hits that rank 11th, Leah Vaughan’s 26 doubles in 2019 that rank seventh, Evie Lorimer’s 16 triples in 2011 that are tied for eighth and her 37 career triples from 2010-12 that are ranked fourth, Vaughan’s 23 career times being hit by pitch from 2016-19 which rank second, and Lorimer’s 92 stolen bases in 2012 that rank second (with all 92 coming consecutively to tie for fifth on that list) and 183 career steals that rank 11th. As a team, Spring Lake in 2017 ranked seventh all-time with 501 hits over 42 games, fourth with 109 doubles and eighth with 34 triples. The 2018 team ranks 11th with 441 runs scored over 41 games, 10th with 497 hits and tied for ninth with 100 doubles. Valerie Alter, Linsey Paggeot, Jenna Core, Molly Poole, Alicia Mumby, Leah Anton, Ann Marie Galloway and Rachael Adams also earned individual entries. Nelson went on to play at Grand Valley State, Vaughan plays at Aquinas College, Lorimer played at Central Michigan, Alter played at Jacksonville University (Fla.), Poole plays at Cornerstone University and Mumby played at Lansing Community College. Core plays volleyball at Hope College.
Freeland’s offense earned five record book entries during the team’s 26-12 season in 2022, including for 412 runs scored, 442 hits, 78 doubles, 336 RBI and a .400 team batting average. Three individuals also earned entries – sophomore Addie Steffen for a 20-game hitting streak and seven RBI in a game, junior Evelynn Rybicki for six RBI in a game and freshman Brynn Jaime for getting hit by a pitch twice in the same inning.
Chloe Parker hit .604 last spring and made the records with 20 doubles over 33 games for Niles Brandywine. She’s a junior this school year.
A series of record book entries were added for past and present Zeeland West standouts. Carly Sleeman was added for 73 runs, 75 hits, 27 doubles and 12 home runs in 2021 as a sophomore, while Lily Brower was added for 72 runs, 17 triples and 11 homers, plus 38 doubles and 29 triples over a four-year varsity career. Sleeman’s 27 doubles are tied for fifth-most in one season, and Brower’s 17 triples are tied for fourth on that list. Haley Hoogenraad was added for 70 hits and 17 doubles as a junior in 2015, 19 doubles as a senior, and 49 doubles and 24 triples over her four-year career from 2013-16. Kenzie Siersma was added for 17 doubles in 2017 and 54 over her career from 2016-19, while Courtney Sleeman made the season home runs list with 15 in 2015 and Sarah VanValkenburg made the career RBI list with 152 from 2014-17. Emily Brands was added for hitting consecutive home runs in the same inning, May 7 against Reese; she graduated this spring. Hoogenraad went on to play at University of Michigan, Courtney Sleeman played at Western Michigan, Siersma plays at West Virginia Tech, Brower played last season at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Carly Sleeman has signed with Central Michigan.
PHOTO Owosso’s Macy Irelan unloads a pitch during the 2021 Division 2 Final.