South Haven Building on Memorable Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

April 23, 2019

SOUTH HAVEN — When A.J. Jeffries injured her shoulder during basketball season, she was devastated, afraid that she would be watching her teammates instead of playing this softball season.

But the South Haven junior catcher opted for physical therapy instead of surgery and, although she missed tryouts in March, she was ready to take her place behind the plate for the Rams after spring break.

Senior Olivia Ellis, who goes by “Gracie,” did miss the first day of tryouts, but not because of injury.

The reigning Miss Bangor competed in, and won, the Miss Blossomtime pageant, quite a different experience than suiting up for a softball game.

Instead of wearing spikes for tryouts on March 11, Ellis was wearing dress shoes and walking across a stage.

“Being an athlete, I had to buy heels and I did horrible (walking in them),” she said, laughing. “I never wore heels before, and they hurt my feet.

“I didn’t know how to do makeup. It was bad.”

Coach Wilma Wilson said she knew Ellis planned to compete in the pageant.

“I actually have Miss South Haven (junior Liz Johnson) on my team as well,” Wilson said. “It’s one of those things where the kids who are usually good at a lot of things, do a lot of things.

“You have to try to be flexible. It can hurt. We missed her at our tournament (a week ago), but I also know that is going to be a great experience as well in the whole scheme of life.”

Wilson looks at sports as well as preparation for life, and South Haven softball has been living well over the last 10 months.

The Rams are the reigning Division 2 runners-up, making last season’s MHSAA Finals championship game – their first since 1979 – after finishing just third in their league. South Haven is off to a 5-3 start this spring, with five starters returning from that run including Jeffries and Ellis – although the team lost its entire infield to graduation and almost lost its catcher for this season.

Jeffries, who has played on the varsity team all three years, injured her labrum in the Rams’ first basketball scrimmage in December. The original diagnosis called for surgery.

“I was on vacation in Hawaii and she called me, bawling her eyes out,” Wilson said.

“I could hardly understand what she was saying because she said ‘I’m not going to be able to play this year. I have to have surgery, and I’m not going to be good.”

Wilson recommended a second opinion, which suggested physical therapy. Jeffries opted for that and finally was cleared to play after spring break.

“During a team meeting, she said she will not let one minute be taken for granted because basically when you think the opportunity is going to be taken away from you, then you can appreciate the opportunity so much more,” Wilson said of Jeffries.

“AJ is that dirty, gritty, sparkplug catcher,” she added. “If you watch her play, it’s joyful because she plays the game hard, like it should be.”

Still, Jeffries was surprised at the team’s run last year.

“I had no idea we’d be in the state finals (for the first time since 1979),” she said. “It was just an unexpected thing, but we just played game by game and took everything that we learned from each game and applied it to the next.

“This year, I expect to play every game like it’s our last game for our seniors and for everybody that came up because I think we can do really good things this year.”

Ellis, who is headed to Manchester College in the fall to play softball, is one of those seniors.

“My advice to the girls coming up is give it your all because in two months or so, I’m going to be done with high school and softball,” said the second baseman, who played left field a year ago. “I know I’m going to regret not putting in as much effort as I could have.

“We actually lost five from last year and three of them were starters pretty much since freshman year, so we lost a lot. We’re all, especially the returners, itching to be just as good as we were last year.”

Wilson said Ellis has grown a lot over the last four years.

“She’s one of those quiet freshmen who came up and didn’t play a lot those first couple years and then this year, she’s been a great leader on our infield and is very vocal in a positive way but (by) also letting the kids know when they have to step it up a little bit,” she said.

Joining Jeffries and Ellis among returning starters are junior Torie Loikits – who earned all-state honorable mention last season – junior Holli Dannenberg and sophomore Jordyn Holland. Holland led off and played center field in last season’s championship game against Escanaba, and Dannenberg played right field. Holland also hit the eighth-inning home run that pushed South Haven past top-ranked Stevensville Lakeshore in last season’s Regional Final.

Other seniors on this year’s team are Grace Lyons, Paeton Hayes, Jules Stuckum, Macy Jenks and Courtney Kelly. Juniors also include Mallory Dorow and Opal Eddy, and sophomore Lexi Young is another contributor.

While Wilson is listed as the head coach, “there are really three of us who are co-coaches,” she said.

Dave Gumpert pitched professionally with the Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals from 1982-87. Mike Sweet has “coached softball for a long time and has been a head coach in different sports,” Wilson said.

All three coaches played sports at the high school and all three are members of the South Haven High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

“I think the three of us each bring something different to the program, but it helps us be cohesive and look at the game from different angles,” said Wilson, who was on the Rams team that lost in the Class B Semifinals in 1982, her senior year.

“Between the three of us, we bring a ton of experience.”

Wilson not only coaches, but also drives the bus to away games, “which is really nice because we have that time together with no interruptions with another team or a boys team,” she said. “When we do our ‘remember whens’ at the end of the year, almost all of our memories come from our time on the little bus.”

As noted above, Wilson looks at sports as a preparation for life. And South Haven sees this spring as another chance to build on last season’s dream run and the lessons learned along the way.

“One of my perspectives is that you’re probably going to end up involved in your life the same way you are involved in sports,” she said.

“You’re going to have to learn to get along with people, you’re going to have to learn to have some self-judgment, you’re going to have to make adjustments, you’re going to have to try to improve on things that you don’t do well in.”

Pam 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 catcher A.J. Jeffries fires the ball after a strikeout during last season’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gracie Ellis is crowned Miss Blossomtime last month. (Below) From left, South Haven coach Wilma Wilson, Ellis and Jeffries. (Middle photo by Don Campbell/St. Joseph Herald-Palladium.)

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.)