As Season 50 Begins, Johnson Continues Nurturing Opportunities Into Lasting Successes

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

April 13, 2022

Kay Johnson’s high school athletic career consisted of a field hockey game, one or two volleyball matches and a basketball game. 

“We would get the gym one night a week, and we’d play something,” she said, recalling her days at Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities.”

The introduction to sports was all she needed, however, to form a lifelong passion for athletics. Johnson is starting her 50th season this week as softball coach at Morenci High School in south central Michigan. The school is less than two miles from the Ohio border but has long been on the Michigan map when it comes to sports. 

Much of that credit belongs to Johnson. She’s coached multiple generations of Bulldogs athletes. At one time she coached four sports – basketball, volleyball, track and softball.

“In the winter we would have basketball practice until 5, then the girls would spend the next half hour working on their spring sports,” she said. “I would catch our softball pitchers in the gym and our track athletes would put some work in.”

In the spring of 1976, Johnson coached Morenci to a league championship in softball and the Lower Peninsula Class D track & field championship. 

“We were very successful in the 1970s,” she said. “We got a head start on a lot of people. We had all of our sports going pretty strong those first seven or eight years.”

Johnson arrived at Morenci at about the same time Title IX was becoming law. The legislation protected people of all genders from discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. 

Morenci, she said, got a leg up on other schools in the area when it came to sports. Part of that was the push she gave sports at the school.

“I knew in the eighth grade that I wanted to be a physical education teacher,” she said. “Out of high school I went to Adrian College, and I played everything I could. I played basketball, field hockey and volleyball and played two years on the tennis team. 

“Adrian encouraged women to get involved in sports, so I was fortunate there, too.

“At Morenci, we had a superintendent, Harold Hall, whose daughter was a good athlete, and he wanted her to participate in sports. It didn’t happen overnight because of Title IX, but it developed. We had a lot of girls participate.”

Morenci softballShe didn’t necessarily dream of one day becoming a coach but accepted the role when she got to Morenci.

“I was the physical education teacher,” she said. “It was kind of assumed the PE teacher would be a coach. They sort of just gave me the sports to coach. I was okay with it.”

There were some growing pains with girls athletics. 

“In the winter, our basketball team would have to wait until after wrestling meets to have a practice,” she said. “Some nights our practices were from 9:30 or 9:45 to 10:30. Most of our girls did two or three sports. Finding gym time was a struggle.”

Things that athletes take for granted these days, such as uniforms, were also difficult to come by.

“We wore the same T-shirts for all of our sports the first few years,” she said. “It wasn’t until we pushed for it that every sport had their own uniforms. I don’t think anyone was suing anyone in Morenci back then, but there were little pushes here and there to make things happen. I don’t even remember when the pay for coaches started evening out. Nothing happens without a push.”

Over the years, however, Title IX took hold and athletes from Morenci and all over the state and nation benefited. 

As the seasons grew and things evolved, Johnson eventually stopped coaching varsity track & field, volleyball, and basketball, although she had huge successes in each sport. Johnson was teacher for 23 years and middle school principal for 15. After retiring she went a couple of years without a formal title but covered assorted duties such as middle school volleyball coach, volleyball scorekeeper, filming for boys basketball and football and running concession stands. Soon, she became athletic director, a position she left a few years ago. 

Softball, however, has remained her constant.

“I’m still challenged by it,” she said. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”

The Bulldogs went 19-14 last year and won the 25th District title of Johnson’s tenure. She also has 11 league titles, nine Regional titles and two Class C Finals championships (1985 and 1986) in softball. Her 949 career wins put her firmly in the top 15 among the state’s all-time winningest softball coaches. Technically the 2022 season is No. 49, although she’s been coach for 50. The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.

“I still coached all winter to get the girls ready,” she said. “We just didn’t have a season.”

Johnson said she has been happy coaching at Morenci. In 1978, she briefly coached basketball at another Lenawee County school when it appeared Morenci was not going to have high school athletics due to a millage not passing. She was juggling coaching the girls at Morenci and at another school, but when the millage passed and sports were restored at Morenci she gave up the other school.

“I’ve never really looked to go anywhere else,” she said. “I never looked to coach in college. The recruiting never interested me.”

Johnson has 23 athletes in the Morenci softball program this year including some who have not played softball before, meaning she’s teaching the game almost from the bottom up.

“I just have to be patient,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge of seeing where we start to where we end. I’ve never been one to coach to win the first game of the season. I want to win the last.”

Doug 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 with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Morenci softball coach Kay Johnson talks things over with player Rebekah Shoemaker during last season’s Division 4 Regional. (Middle) Johnson confers with the home plate umpire. (Photos by Doug Donnelly.)

Owosso Ace's Strikeout Total Stacks Up with State's All-Time Best

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

January 4, 2023

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.