Nelson Aiming for Another Finals Trip to Close Stellar Whiteford Career

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

April 16, 2024

OTTAWA LAKE – It’s easy to figure out what is on Unity Nelson’s mind.

Greater DetroitThe Ottawa Lake Whiteford softball pitcher is focused on getting the Bobcats back to Michigan State University and in a position to win a Division 3 championship.

“We’re going to get back there,” Nelson nods, while knocking softly on the wooded dugout at Whiteford’s softball field.

Nelson has been one of the most dominating pitchers in the state the past couple of seasons and has the No. 1-ranked Bobcats poised for another strong season. Whiteford has come painfully close the last couple of seasons to bringing home a Finals title but come up short.

In 2021 they lost in the Division 4 Quarterfinals after going 32-5. In 2022, Whiteford won a school-record 40 games before falling in the Division 4 championship game. Last season, a 37-5 season ended with a loss in the Division 3 Final.

Nelson said this year’s Bobcats are a new team with the same championship mindset.

“We are really close,” she said. “That helps us. On and off the field, we are very close. With some of the new faces on the team, I think all the seniors have had to step up a little bit. We want everyone to have fun, and we are trying to help them with the new experience.”

Nelson grew up in nearby Clinton, where her sister Tierney was an all-state pitcher who went on to play a season at Lamar State College in Texas. Unity followed in her sister’s softball footsteps.

“I remember watching my sister play,” Nelson said. “She was a pitcher and I looked up to her. I’ve seen videos of me pitching when I was 4.”

By 7, Nelson was pitching to her dad, Mike, and joined a travel team. As a ninth grader, she enrolled at Whiteford and was an instant hit.

The Bobcats are coached by Matt VanBrandt, previously an all-state baseball player at the school and Whiteford’s baseball coach for several seasons before he gave it up around the time his daughters Anna and Aly were born. His wife Audra assists him, and both daughters played for them. Aly won the Miss Softball Award last year as the top senior position player and is now starting for University of Indiana.

Nelson readies to make a play. (Photos by Kristie Conrad.)Nelson came into this season 64-6 over her three varsity seasons, with 858 strikeouts in 404 innings. She’s allowed just 26 earned runs in three seasons. Last year in the District, she struck out 22 of the 24 batters she faced over eight perfect innings.

She already holds several Whiteford single-season and career records, but Matt VanBrandt is careful not to overpitch the 5-foot-2 Nelson.

“I don’t plan on pitching her any more this season,” he said. “She’s pitched about 65 or 70 percent of the innings over the last three years, and that’s what she will do this year. She’s always had another pitcher alongside of her, and this year we have Karlei Conard, who is going to play in college and possibly pitch.”

The soft-spoken Nelson has become more vocal this season.

“At first she was a lead-by-example player,” VanBrandt said. “She was doing that as a freshman.

“This year, she’s become more vocal to the underclassmen, but in a positive way. She’s matured in her leadership. She’s grown every single year. It’s been so much fun to watch her grow and interact with her teammates. She’s everything you want in a leader. She pushes everyone to be their best.”

Nelson is devoted to the sport. She pitches to her dad as many as five days a week. She’s grown to understand what she needs to do to stay sharp.

“If I need to work on a certain pitch, I’ll do that,” she said. “I’ll listen to what my body needs. If it hurts, I’m probably not going to pitch. I’ll stretch and ice instead.

“If I don’t feel connected mentally and physically, I try to work and slow things down at home and get back to how I want to feel.”

While Nelson is focused on a state championship, she’s also not in a hurry to speed things up. She wants to enjoy her senior season before she heads off to pitch at North Dakota University.

“I try to just stay in the moment,” she said. “I don’t want to reach too far into the future. It’s about this game, this inning, this pitch. That’s what I want to live by right now. It’s my senior year. I want to hold on to that.”

While Nelson dominates the circle, future Bobcats stars often gather around the dugout to watch. When Whiteford faced Blissfield on Monday in a non-league game, several had a front-row seat, watching and cheering every pitch, every at-bat and occasionally had one of the Whiteford coaches check in to be sure they understood what was happening on the field.

It’s part of keeping the program connected, VanBrandt said.

Nelson and the rest of the varsity Bobcats love seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids watching.

“I hear them cheering when everyone is hitting,” she said. “It’s so cute.”

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) Ottawa Lake Whiteford’s Unity Nelson unwinds toward the plate during a game in the pitching circle. (Middle) Nelson readies to make a play. (Photos by Kristie Conrad.)

Grass Lake Slugger Turner Writing Name All Over MHSAA Record Book

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

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.)