By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
CALEDONIA – The Caledonia softball team celebrated the program’s first MHSAA championship a year ago with a 6-4 win over Hartland in the MHSAA Division 1 Final.
With 11 players from that squad back, there’s a strong belief the Fighting Scots have the potential to make a similar postseason run.
“We want to live up to what we did last year a little bit,” senior infielder Brooklynne Siewertsen said. “Everybody thinks that we’re not going to be as good because we lost our star pitcher, but we can be just as good with the pitchers we have. We just need to step up our defense a little bit and show that we belong.”
Caledonia graduated only four seniors last spring. But the headliner of that group was starting pitcher Sammie Gehrls, who’s currently playing at Grand Valley State after earning all-state honors in the circle all four years of high school and leaving with eight entries for hitting in the MHSAA record book.
“She’s only one player, but she’s tough to replace,” 18th-year Caledonia coach Tom Kaechele said. “She did so many things for us on the mound and what have you.”
The Fighting Scots, who entered the week ranked No. 7 in Division 1, have a capable stable of pitchers to fill the void but have suffered early setbacks.
Their No. 1 pitcher, junior Emallee Hamp, can’t throw right now due to an injury, while senior starting catcher Taylor Cross also is sidelined due to an injury suffered in a scrimmage.
“We’re still trying to find the right pieces,” Kaechele said. “Just playing the right pieces and having girls feel comfortable with whoever is on the mound and realizing that they have to play more defense than they did with Sammie. We’re not going to get those 10 or 12-strikeout games.”
But with the bulk of its roster having experienced last year’s success, Caledonia understands what needs to be done to play at a high level.
“We know what it’s like to play at that level, and we know what we are capable of,” Fighting Scots junior Abby Mitchell said. “We’ve already grown tremendously from our first game, and we are all ready to keep getting after it in the coming weeks.”
Added Siewertsen: “It helps tremendously to have a lot of returners because we all know what it takes to get back there (to the Finals). We have a lot of grit and determination.”
The Fighting Scots, who also return seniors Ashleigh VanZytveld, Sage Turner, Jadon Huyser, Erika Dunham, Brenna Nurenberg and Julia Becker and junior Megan Claery, already have seen the effects of being the reigning champions.
Opposing teams aren’t making it easy, and that was obvious in Monday’s 20-13 extra-inning win over Ottawa-Kent Conference Red rival Rockford.
“It’s hard because you have a target on your back and everyone wants to beat you because you are the defending state champs,” Kaechele said. “So it doesn’t matter which team it is because they are going to come out and try to give you the best they have. Rockford never gave up against us and kept coming at us and fighting.”
This year’s team has a close-knit bond and motivates each other daily.
“We all get along really well and push each other in practice and games,” Mitchell said. “We all have so much fun playing the game together, which makes the opportunity to play with these girls incredible.”
Mitchell joined Gehrls in making the all-state first team last season, and Cross earned an honorable mention. Kaechele knew he had a majority of his big bats returning to the lineup, but defense would have to be improved.
“Because of the hitting we had coming back I thought we could be very good coming into the season. But I also knew we had to play better defense, and that’s one thing we’re still trying to work on,” he said. “Just getting our defense back to where it was last year.”
The Fighting Scots are off to a 7-4 start and compete in a highly-competitive O-K Red with the likes of state powerhouses Grandville and Hudsonville, both honorable mentions in the latest Division 1 rankings.
Caledonia didn’t win the conference crown last season, but played well down the stretch en route to its historic feat.
“Once we got on a roll last year we were so dialed in as a team, and we wanted it really bad,” Kaechele said. “We have to get that mindset back and hopefully we can put it all together and get the confidence we need and get some players back that will help us.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Caledonia’s Jadon Huyser is congratulated by assistant coach Amanda Kimes after tripling during last season’s Division 1 Final against Hartland. (Middle) Brooklynne Siewertsen fires a throw to first during the Fighting Scots’ Semifinal win over Warren Regina.
The MHSAA and Holly school communities are grieving this week after the sudden loss of Tony Coggins, a shining light in his educational community and an enthusiastic supporter of school sports as a public address announcer for several of our largest championship events.
But while that cheerful tone has been quieted, it surely will not be forgotten by the many fortunate to enjoy an event in the presence of that voice and the joyfulness he brought into every arena, press box and classroom.
Coggins, 51, died Saturday. He is survived by his wife Kristy and children Emma and Bradlee, among several family and friends from his local and greater sports communities.
His career as a PA announcer began during his freshman year of high school in 1985, when his father Dale Coggins – Flushing’s athletic director at the time – couldn’t find anyone else to announce middle school football games. That was 39 years ago, and this fall Tony Coggins was in his 24th announcing at Holly, where he taught and served as an administrator in addition to his role as “Voice of the Holly Bronchos” for football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, competitive cheer and swimming & diving over the years.
Coggins has been a mainstay among MHSAA Finals PA announcers over the last decade in football, basketball, softball and most recently volleyball. He lent his voice to college sports at University of Michigan as well. “Tony was a huge part of our Finals events. It’s hard to imagine it being the same without him,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said.
As part of the run-up to the MHSAA public address announcers clinic in 2018, Coggins said this about what drew him to the microphone:
“I have zero athletic ability whatsoever, which is interesting because my father was an all-state running back. But I enjoy being involved, and I've always been the one for history and statistics and knowing what's going on,” Coggins said. “This is a way for me to be involved. It's a way for me to use a talent I've been given; public speaking has always come pretty naturally for me.
“So I worked at my craft to get better. I got better from watching the people around me, from studying the people I like, and the people – if I saw someone I didn’t care for – I'd make a note and say to myself, ‘Don't do that.’ I take feedback from people very personally, and I mean that in a good way. If somebody takes the time to come up and say, ‘You did this well; I think you should change this,’ that means they care about the program also. We all have the same goal in mind, and that's to make the experience good for the high school student and the parents, the fans, that come there.”
Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at St. John Vianney, 2415 Bagley Street in Flint. There will be visitation from 2-8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, at the Swartz Funeral Home, 1225 West Hill Road, and at the church from 10 a.m. Saturday until the time of the Mass.
The Holly volleyball team played for something bigger tonight
Beloved PA announcer Anthony Coggins died on Friday night from a heart attack
— Brandon Green🍀 (@BGreenReports) October 24, 2023