Return Trip Ends with Dakota's 1st Title

June 17, 2017

By Perry A. Farrell
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Macomb Dakota had unfinished business at the Division 1 Softball Final against Grandville on Saturday at Michigan State.

The Cougars lost in last year’s Final, 4-0, to Farmington Hills Mercy while pursuing their first MHSAA title. But they earned another shot this weekend, against a Bulldogs team also looking to win a first championship in program history.

A bases-loaded wild pitch sent Dakota’s Kattie Popko home to score the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 4-3 victory and the Cougars’ redemption.

Ranked No. 1 for most of the season, Dakota finished 36-2.

“We always depend on each other and we always, always, always never give up; that’s something that helped us win today,’’ said Popko, a senior outfielder who had two hits. “As soon as I saw the ball go high, I knew I had to go. Right from her hand it’s an immediate trigger. I had to go for it.

“Last year we knew it was going to be tough going into the state championship game. Farmington Hills Mercy blew their way through the tournament. This year we knew we had to forget about last year. We knew it was going to be even harder this year to make it here. We had to have confidence in ourselves and trust the training we’ve been through.’’

With one out in the eighth, Popko reached base on an error by the third baseman, and Julia Salisbury –  who had driven in the first three Cougars runs and had three hits – singled to put the winning run at second base with pitcher Kendahl Dunford coming to the plate. Dunford singled in front of the rightfielder to load the bases with one out.

Grandville pitcher Ellie Muilenburg struck out the next batter. Dakota’s Arieanna Grammatico was at the plate when the wild pitch got away.

“It was a great game; we went toe-to-toe with the best team in the state,’’ said Grandville coach Troy Ungrey. “I will feel better about it in a couple of hours. I’m proud of the girls. We’ve come a long way. You know you’re going to see great pitching in the state championship game. That being said, I think if they aren’t the top two pitchers in the state they have to be in the top five; both of them. Hats off to (Dunford). We were a little high on the pitch. We were planning to go up in the zone. It just got away.’’ 

Dunford threw all eight innings, striking out 11.

“It’s good to see your hard work pay off,’’ said Dunford. “This is where it gets you; you get a state championship if you keep working hard. Every girl has to have the mentality that you want this, and it comes down to who wants it more. I think we showed that we did.’’

Coach Rick Fontaine said they’d find room in the trophy case for a softball title.

“I said at our banquet that when you’re No. 1 everyone is gunning for you,’’ he said. “You get everybody’s A game every week of the season. After being here last year and losing in the Finals and coming all the way back … to fight all the way through and win is great for the girls, especially for the ones who were on the team last year.’’

Dakota got off to a quick start in the first inning. Corbin Hison singled and made it to second on an error. Olivia Popko singled and Salisbury doubled both home to give the Cougars a 2-0 lead.

It didn’t last long.

Muilenburg singled with one out and Traci Merriman hit a shot that got under the glove of the diving centerfielder. Merriman made it around the bases to tie the game, 2-2.

Grandville kept hitting and got an RBI single from Kalli Gibson to take a 3-2 lead in the top of the third inning. Salisbury drove in her third run with a two-out single to tie the game, 3-3, in the bottom of the third.

It stayed that way as both pitchers, Dunford and Muilenburg, allowed just five hits each and enjoyed good defense behind them.

Dunford had reached double-digit strikeouts by the top of the seventh inning, but Muilenburg kept the Cougars’ bats silent as well. She finished with 10 strikeouts, and both walked only one batter.

Click for the full box score

PHOTOS: (Top) Macomb Dakota's Kattie Popko slides in for the winning run in the Division 1 Final. (Middle) Kendahl Dunford prepares to deliver during her 11-strikeout performance. 

Game May Change, But Success Continues as Wilson Nears 800 Coaching Wins

By Pam Shebest
Special for

April 16, 2024

SOUTH HAVEN — No dugouts, no outfield fences, $25 bats.

Southwest CorridorThings have come a long way since Wilma Wilson took over the coaching reins at her alma mater 35 years ago.

“When I played, we didn’t have fences, we didn’t have dugouts; we had benches,” the South Haven softball coach said. “If you hit a home run, it had to be an in-the-park home run because there were hardly any parks that had any fences.

“It’s come a long way. Now you go to fields that are turfed. I love it. I’m glad to see the change for the girls and to see more emphasis on them playing and being involved.”

With a 791-406 record over her 35 years coaching the Rams softball team, Wilson is closing in on 800 career wins. Her current record puts her 19th among MHSAA coaches and just 16 victories behind former Monroe coach Vince Rossi’s 807 victories.

The Rams are 2-2 on the young season, but started off with a bang — actually three bangs over the right field fence in a one-run squeaker against Paw Paw on March 26.

Although the team has just 11 players, it is stacked with experience. Nine players saw action last season, and the five seniors have three or four years of varsity time.

Those seniors include twins Kamryn and Taylor Holland.

Against Paw Paw, Kamryn hit her first grand slam, a walk-off homer in a 12-11 win.

The Rams enjoy watching Marlee Wilson’s Broncos this season. “I knew it was going to be close as soon as I saw it,” the third baseman said. “I just kept running and started jumping up and down when I saw it go over.”

She was one of the veterans instrumental in the team’s postseason play last year, as South Haven reached its Division 2 District Final before losing 6-2 to Hamilton.

The Rams are focused on a longer run this year.

“A lot of the girls have been on the same team, and we’ve played together the past three years,” Kamryn said. “We know enough about each other and work good together. Everything clicks.”

Her sister, a shortstop/pitcher, agrees she and her teammates already have solid connections and said Wilson is a big reason.

“I love how much she pushes me,” Taylor Holland said. “She’s always there when you need her. She’ll take you aside if you need anything and always wants us to be our best. I just love that about her, because she loves us on and off the field.”

Wilson does more than work on softball with the players.

“(Last week) I sat down with the girls and had a good heart-to-heart, working through frustrations, trying to help kids maneuver through things in life, whether at school, at home, in the game,” she said. 

“That’s a huge part of coaching and what keeps me in it, knowing I can make a difference helping these kids manage life a little bit.”

Continuing the legacy

One of Wilson’s former players who is still very involved in the sport is her daughter, Marlee Wilson, in her first season as Western Michigan University’s head softball coach.

The Broncos won their 20th game of the season Sunday, making Wilson WMU’s winningest first-year softball coach. 

Wilson, right, joins daughter Marlee to form an accomplished mother-daughter coaching tree. “I coached her when she was small, coached her through high school, coached her in travel ball,” Wilma Wilson said. “She’s a very competitive kid, plays really hard. She has that same love for the game that I do, same drive.”

Marlee Wilson said one important thing she learned from her mom was to make softball fun.

“Practices in high school were always really fun,” she remembered. “It was the best part of the day. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. (I want to) continue that and also develop the student athletes as people.

“There’s not a huge career in softball like there is in baseball and other sports, so you’re going to play four or five years in college then hopefully be prepared for life after sports, which (Mom) did a really good job with me.”

When she has a chance to talk with high school athletes, Marlee Wilson tells them to have fun and learn the basics of the game.

“That’s huge in high school,” she said. “At the college level, we can tell players who went through really good high school programs or travel programs that have those really good fundamentals or softball IQ.

“(Mom) does a really good job of developing players as a whole so when they get to that level, they understand that part of the game.”

Wilson played softball at WMU from 2014-18 and was a three-time academic all-Mid-American Conference honoree, a 2017 MAC Distinguished Scholar-Athlete and a four-time NFCA All-American Scholar.

Sparking like Sparky

Although Wilma Wilson calls him a “co-coach,” Dave Gumpert considers himself her assistant the last 11 years.

“I respect her many years as being a coach,” he said. “We talk things over, but she makes the final decisions.

“It’s been a really good relationship. She bounces things off me, I bounce things off her. It’s been a good run so far.”

Gumpert, who had a seven-year stint as a major league pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, is the one who good-naturedly calls Wilson “Sparky” and not because of her sparkling personality.

Myraql McGee settles in under a fly ball. “She pretty much lets me run practice, and she walks around,” he said, smiling. “I played for (Tigers manager) Sparky Anderson and that’s what he did. He walked around the outfield, just talking to people and doing all the PR stuff while all the other coaches were getting the work done. So I like to tease her.”

Equipment has been another area of change during Wilson’s tenure.

“The equipment has gone crazy from the technology of bats,” she said. “A bat back in the day would be $20, $25. Now they’re $400. 

“If take my school budget and buy balls for the season for both our (varsity and JV) teams and a bat, I’ve used two-thirds of my budget.”

But South Haven is making those bats work. Senior centerfielder Myraql McGee said hitting is among the team’s most noticeable improvements from a year ago.

“Our whole lineup is good power hitters. It doesn’t matter where you are, our lineup is pretty stacked,” said McGee, who will continue her career next season at Missouri Valley College.

“Fielding-wise, we could work on a couple things, but we don’t make as many errors at routine plays as many other teams.”

Other seniors are Sam Beeney and Kayley Gorham, and juniors are Madi Dotson, Grace Strebeck and Molly Verseput. Sophomores are Addison Dekoning and Erin Bos, and they are joined by freshman Ly’Nique Cunningham.

Gumpert was with Wilson when the Rams reached but lost in the Division 2 Final in 2018 and sees some similarities between that and this year’s team.

“Offensively, we had a good team, but I would dare to say this team is as good offensively as that team was,” he said. “It’s going to boil down to how well our pitching does, how well our pitchers progress. If we have the pitching I think we can develop into, I think we’ll be competitive with anybody.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) South Haven softball coach Wilma Wilson, right, welcomes home Kamryn Holland after Holland’s grand slam March 26. (2) The Rams enjoy watching Marlee Wilson’s Western Michigan Broncos this season. (2) Wilson, right, joins daughter Marlee to form an accomplished mother-daughter coaching tree. (4) South Haven senior Myraql McGee settles in under a fly ball. (Top and WMU photos provided by Wilma Wilson, family photo by Pam Shebest, and McGee action photo provided by McGee.)