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 at[email protected] 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.)
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.