Senior-Led Napoleon Fulfilling Promise

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

April 28, 2017

By Chip Mundy
Special to Second Half

NAPOLEON – Napoleon softball coach Doug Richardson heard about his current group of seniors when they were in middle school.

Yet, even with the promising words, Richardson tempered his expectations.

“Normally at Napoleon, when you have good athletes come through, for some reason the basketball bug bites them, and all of a sudden softball becomes second nature,' Richardson said. “When I heard we had a great group coming through around the seventh grade, I felt like, 'Well, basketball will bite them pretty soon.'

“All of the parents that I talked to said, 'Not these girls.' They played basketball, but for the most part, softball is their game. It really is a joy to coach them.”

The parents were right. Napoleon, ranked No. 4 in the latest Division 3 state poll, has eight seniors, and six played on varsity as freshmen. The team is 13-1 and coming off a second consecutive championship in the Saline Invitational – quite a feat considering Napoleon faced Division 1 competition in winning the event.

The Pirates have maintained excellence during the four-year run of this group.

As freshmen, they were part of a team that defeated Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central pitching phenom Meghan Beaubien 2-0 in the Regional Semifinals. Napoleon remains the only team to defeat Beaubien in the MHSAA tournament; the Kestrels have won the past two Division 3 titles.

As sophomores, the Pirates had a 28-game winning streak and were ranked No. 3 in the state before losing to Beaubien and the Kestrels 4-0 in the Quarterfinals.

As juniors, Napoleon ended Grass Lake's six-year run as champion of the Cascades Conference.

With a three-year record of 104-16 coming into this season, the Pirates and their senior-based squad are looking to end with a flourish. After its victory over East Jackson on Tuesday, Napoleon is 100 games above. 500 (117-17) with this senior class, and that number obviously is going to climb.

'Any 5-year-old could coach this team'

A team dad mentioned that recently, and Richardson shares the joke. While it was an obvious overstatement, the point remains clear.

“I just make out the lineup and sit back and watch,” Richardson said. “It's a senior-laden team, and if you ask what the lineup is going to be, they could tell you right now, depending on whether Rachel (Griffin) is catching or playing third.

“We have eight seniors who know each other and know the game well. They do what they want to do. I do give them signs, but for the most part, they do what they need to do.”

Richardson pitches batting practice, and that has become an event for the Pirates.

“Our motivation for practice is to hit Doug because the other coach will buy ice cream for the entire team,” four-year senior Paige Kortz said.

Richardson, either bravely or otherwise, welcomes the challenge and sees practice as a time when his coaching is needed as much or more than during a game.

“Still, somebody needs to push them at practice,” he said.

The Pirates have a swagger. They arrive a little later than other teams on the road, but they do it because they feel prepared enough to take a shorter warmup.

“I love the way teams look at us when we get off the bus,” said Griffin, another of the seniors. “They're like, 'They're not even here to warm up.' The other teams are hitting off tees and maybe wondering if we are even going to show up.”

It could be said that Napoleon is the last team to arrive for a tournament and the last to leave as it typically plays in the title game and wins.

“We get there about 45 minutes early,” Richardson said. “We're not trying to intimidate anyone.”

Eye-popping numbers

It's early in the season, but the Pirates are hitting .496 (201-for-405) and have outscored their opponents 168-25 over 14 games. Defensively, they have made 12 errors – fewer than one per game.

Kortz, who played center field the past three seasons but now starts at shortstop, leads the way with a hefty .692 average. She also leads the team with four home runs, 32 runs scored and 14 stolen bases.

“Our goals are high considering it's our senior year,” said Kortz, who broke the school record for hits in a season as a freshman and then set a new standard as a sophomore.

Griffin is a hard-hitting catcher with power. She is batting .600 and leads the team with 24 RBI. Last year, she tied the school record with 12 home runs and broke the single-season record for RBI with 62.

“We have a good time with each other, and we all love each other and we're close,” she said. “It just makes you sad that one day we're not going to be seeing each other after practice or taking grounders with each other.

“I have so much fun at the tournaments, and I know we all have some good laughs in the dugout. When we have fun, we seem to do better.”

Six others – all seniors – are hitting better than .450, led by first baseman Kaitlyn Weaver (.500 with two home runs and 20 RBI). Haley Rose, who moved from the outfield to third base this season, is hitting .489, while outfielder Dylan Wiley is at .480 with 22 RBI and nine stolen bases.

Kalie Pittman, who rotates between second base and the outfield, is hitting .467, while second baseman Ashton Jordon is at .457. Sydney Coe, the ace pitcher, is batting .452.

“We see each other every day in school,” Coe said. “We know when something is wrong, so then you can talk to them about it and help them through it, both on and off the field.”

Coe is having another stellar season. She is 10-0 with a 0.80 ERA. She has allowed 31 hits in 52 1/3 innings and has 60 strikeouts and 13 walks. Griffin has caught Coe all four seasons at Napoleon, and they have a solid bond.

“I give all respect to Sydney for pitching because pitching is so hard,” Griffin said. “She's the one pretty much doing it, and I'm just her feedback. She can control it; if she doesn't want to throw a pitch, she won't throw it.

“Against Brighton, she was just coming out of nowhere and had everyone on their heels. She was making people dance in the batter's box. They did not know what was coming, and she was hitting all her spots. She was doing really good.”

Richardson allows the battery to call the pitches.

“It's me and Rachel working together on it,” Coe said. “I just try to communicate with her as much as possible. Like if I have a pitch that isn't working as well one day, we'll throw it with nobody on base or when it's a low count.”

While there is plenty of season left, many of the current Pirates will play softball at the next level. Coe is headed for Lawrence Tech, while Griffin will be at Davenport University and Kortz will be at Ferris State in the fall. Wiley plans to attend Findlay, while Rose and Jordan will play at Jackson College.

A step up in competition

Last weekend, Napoleon went to the Saline Invitational and won the championship. It might seem like an upset, considering Napoleon is a Division 3 school competing against mostly Division 1 competition. However, it was Napoleon's second consecutive year as champion of the event.

The Pirates loved playing the role of “little ol' Napoleon.”

“I know there were teams there that thought, 'Oh, they're Division 3,' and they didn't know what to expect because they are used to high-class competition,” Griffin said.

Napoleon played Saline in the championship game and trailed 4-1 in the sixth inning.

“We were like, 'Wow, we're not used to this,'“ Griffin said. “We had games where we were mercying everyone before we went into that, and it was like our lineup just flipped a switch and everyone was hitting.”

Napoleon tied it in the sixth and won it in the seventh on a hit by Rose.

“It gave us a confidence boost,” Kortz said. “We compete very well in our league, but to see bigger schools like Salem and Saline (both honorable mentions in the Division 1 rankings) and coming back in the championship game gave us a boost and made us believe that we can do it in harder games. We can come together as a team when we need to.

“I knew some girls on another team saying that her coach said (that) game shouldn't be as close of a game because we come from a rural town and how their team travels to tournaments on charter buses and we travel to tournaments on school buses.”

The players realize that going against teams from larger-school divisions can only make them better players.

“We go to the Class A tournaments to practice what we are going to see in the District, Regional and states,” Coe said. “Winning does give us confidence, so when we go into the postseason we are more confident in knowing that we can beat schools no matter how good they are.”

Napoleon has a local rival as well. Last year, the Pirates ended Grass Lake's six-year hold on the Cascades Conference championship. However, Grass Lake – an honorable mention in Division 3 this week – defeated Napoleon in the District championship game, and the two teams are set to play next week.

“It was heartbreaking to lose to Grass Lake, especially because we competed with them in the conference,” Coe said. “They are a really good team, and it's hard to beat a good team three times. That's what they've always said.

“So, going into it, we were hopeful that we could come out with a win, but as heartbreaking as it is, we understood what it meant and that we had to work harder in the offseason to push ourselves to the next level and rise above the odds.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sydney Coe winds up during Wednesday's doubleheader at East Jackson. (Middle) Paige Kortz waits on a pitch Wednesday. (Below) Kortz, left and Rachel Griffin are two of a strong group of seniors leading the Pirates. (Photos by Chip Mundy.)

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.)