By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — The last thing Marissa VanDenBerg wanted to talk about was her game-winning triple.
She wanted to give credit to Grandville Calvin Christian teammate Kennedy Stevens, the No. 9 hitter whose game-tying single made VanDenBerg’s heroics possible.
She also didn't mind talking about the two big defensive plays she made to snare foul balls from her shortstop position, one of which was responsible for the bandage wrapped around her left forearm.
"I'm just used to getting injured," VanDenBerg said. "It's OK. It's fine. It happens."
What hasn't happened for the Squires since 1994 is a trip to an MHSAA softball championship game, a drought that ended with a 4-2 come-from-behind victory over Millington on Friday in the Division 3 Semifinals at Michigan State University. Calvin Christian (33-10) will face reigning champion Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central for the title at 3 p.m. Saturday at MSU's Secchia Stadium.
St. Mary (27-5) beat Gladstone, 13-0, in five innings in the other Semifinal.
Down 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning, unranked Calvin Christian scored three runs to hand fifth-ranked Millington (42-2) only its second loss of the season and end the Cardinals' 31-game winning streak. Stevens tied it with a two-out single to right, and VanDenBerg broke the deadlock with a two-run triple to center field.
Stevens, the No. 9 hitter, has the lowest average among the Squires' starters at .293. But with Millington pitcher Taylor Wright about to strand runners in scoring position for the third straight inning, Stevens lined a single to right field to bring home Kendall Bouma with the tying run.
"To be honest, I haven't had a hit that big in a long time," Stevens said. "It means a lot. I didn't really know where I hit it until after I came back to the dugout and people told me. With how powerful their crowd was, there was a lot of noise going on and distraction. You really have to focus. It's hard at times."
VanDenBerg, the only senior who played for the Squires on Friday, stepped up and crushed a pitch to center field. The Cardinals’ center fielder took one step in before running back to chase the fly ball, which just eluded her outstretched glove short of the warning track. Jaycie Bos, who walked, and Stevens scored to put Calvin Christian ahead, 4-2.
"I give all the credit to Kennedy Stevens, I really do," VanDenBerg said. "I love it when she hits the right side. She starts it off for us. Down in the order, they're awesome. They're the ones who get us going. Our top really didn't do well today. Kennedy's great. I'm so proud of her. I give all the credit to her."
A lot of credit also was directed back at VanDenBerg, not only for her game-winning triple, not only for her two great plays to catch foul balls, but for the leadership she provides an extremely young team. Calvin Christian had seven sophomores, two juniors and a senior in its 10-player lineup (including designated player) on Friday against a freshman-laden Millington team.
"She's so positive and energetic and always seems to know what to say at the right time," Calvin Christian coach Mike Gruppen said. "Then she comes up with big plays. She leads in all ways with her verbal leadership and her leadership on the field. It's unbelievable."
Stevens is one of the sophomores who have benefitted from VanDenBerg's guidance throughout an up-and-down season in which the Squires lost 10 games. Stevens said that VanDenBerg's poise was particularly important as the Squires went deep into the game, still trailing by a run.
"It was hard to pick us back up," Stevens said. "You always have those doubts going through your head. You have a whole team cheering you on and backing you up, especially our shortstop. Marissa VanDenBerg helped a lot, picking us up and bringing us together. She brought us up when we were down. That helped a lot, having a leader like that on our team. She's always talking to us, always cheering us on."
Scoring any runs against Millington was going to be a difficult chore, considering the Cardinals came into the game with eight straight shutouts, outscoring six postseason opponents by a combined 59-0 margin.
That shutout streak ended quickly, as Calvin Christian took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. VanDenBerg led off by reaching base on an error, scoring on a bases-loaded single by Kim Moelker. There could have been more damage in the inning, but Kaleigh Whitcomb was thrown out at the plate for the second out while trying to score on the play.
Millington responded in the top of the second inning, as Sydney Bishop led off with a single and scored when the ball was thrown around following an infield single by Kayli Leix.
A dropped infield popup opened the door for Millington to take a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Taylor Rueger reached on the error, was bunted to second by Taylor Wright and scored on a two-out single to center field by Leix.
Wright escaped a huge jam in the fifth inning. With runners on second and third and one out, she struck out the next two batters to keep Millington ahead by one.
The Cardinals couldn't continue to hold off the Squires, however.
Wright got a strikeout to begin the sixth before Bouma singled and Bos walked. Wright got another strikeout to move within one out of getting out of trouble again before Stevens and VanDenBerg came through with their big hits.
Calvin Christian's rally denied Millington its first appearance in an MHSAA championship game in any sport. The Cardinals made the 1993 Class B volleyball Semifinals, losing to Marysville. Their football team reached the Semifinals in 1994, 1999, 2009 and 2010. The softball team never won a Regional title before this season, getting to the Semifinals despite having five freshmen among nine starters and eight freshmen on a 12-player roster.
"We definitely have girls coming up through our program now," seventh-year Millington coach Greg Hudie said. "We built a love for softball in Millington in the last couple years. We have kids coming back and more kids coming up. The future is very bright."
One of the few losses for the Cardinals will be a key one. Wright, one of only two seniors on the team, had 12 strikeouts Friday. The loss was her first after 22 victories. Millington's only previous loss came against Division 1 10th-ranked 1 Canton in a game in which Wright didn't pitch.
"She's been a role model for a lot of great young pitchers coming up," Hudie said. "We've got some really great pitching coming up. We've got a great freshman pitcher who was our third baseman today (Gabbie Sherman). We've got some lower-level pitchers who absolutely adore Taylor. She made them want to work harder. The wins she's picked up, she means a lot to us. She'll be hard to replace, for sure, but she started all this."
Calvin Christian will play in its fifth MHSAA championship game. The Squires won Class C titles in 1988 and 1993.
Monroe St. Mary 13, Gladstone 0
Meghan Beaubien can admit it now.
"I wouldn't tell anybody, but last year I was pretty nervous," she said. "In both games, I guess. This year, I'm super comfortable. You always have butterflies in your stomach, but I wasn't as nervous as last year."
Beaubien did just fine at MSU last year, allowing only two hits and striking out 30 to lead Monroe St. Mary to victories in the Semifinals and championship game.
The University of Michigan commit, who is still only a junior, took it to another level against Gladstone in a matchup of the last two Division 3 champions.
Beaubien struck out 13 of the 15 batters she faced, pitching a five-inning perfect game. Gladstone didn't hit a ball out of the infield.
"She's the real deal," Gladstone coach Ashley Hughes said. "We were talking about her before this game. Obviously, we knew she was going to be tough. They have a really great team. They're hitters. They're fundamentally sound. The better team won today."
St. Mary pounded out 19 hits, with 12 players getting at least one. Kenna Garst was 3 for 4 with three RBI, while Brooke Angerer was 3 for 3 with two RBI and three runs.
The Kestrels scored four times in the first inning, then broke open a 7-0 game with six more in the fifth.
"This could be our best overall hitting performance," St. Mary coach John Morningstar said. "People know with (Beaubien), three runs is the kiss of death. If you give up three runs, there's no chance of coming back."
Beaubien has 381 strikeouts in 180 1/3 innings this spring. She has a 22-1 record and a 0.23 ERA.
PHOTOS: (Top) Calvin Christian players, including Sarah Elderkin (7) celebrate Friday’s Division 3 Semifinal win. (Middle) A Monroe St. Mary’s runner tries to beat out a Gladstone fielder pursuing with the ball.
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.