By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Holton ace Mikaela Baker couldn’t wait to pitch in last year’s MHSAA Division 4 Softball Quarterfinals against top-ranked Coleman.
So when her coach informed her a couple of hours before the showdown that he was going with 14-year-old freshman Haylee Brant instead, Baker thought he was kidding.
“I was pretty mad and couldn’t understand why he would do that,” said Baker, now a senior, thinking back to Holton’s 6-3 upset of Coleman, which was repeatedly frustrated by Brant’s off-speed pitches. “It worked out perfect. I’m really glad that we have both of us; it makes us a better team and that game proved it.”
Baker is now a senior and Brant a sophomore, and the duo has Holton hoping to get back to the Division 4 Semifinals for the third straight year – and then take the final two steps.
Holton, a rural school with 265 students in northeastern Muskegon County, was a volleyball powerhouse in the early 1990s, finishing Class C runner-up in 1993 and winning the title in 1994. The Red Devils also fielded outstanding football and baseball teams about a decade ago, including a memorable run to the 2006 Division 4 baseball championship game, where powerhouse Homer rallied for a 3-2 victory.
These days, Holton is making its biggest impact on the statewide sports scene on the softball diamond.
Holton made it to the Class C Semifinals in 2013, then posted a 37-0 record in 2015 with a senior-laden roster, before falling to powerhouse Unionville-Sebewaing in the Semifinals at Michigan State University. The Red Devils made a real statement about the strength of their program last spring, overcoming the loss of six key seniors and double-digit losses in the regular season to get back to the Semifinals before losing 2-0 to Indian River Inland Lakes. Holton finished 29-13 last year.
“Last year, we weren’t expected to be very good, and for a while we weren’t real good,” said third-year Holton coach Kirk Younts, himself a 1990 Holton graduate. “But we kept getting better and made another great run. It’s different now. We know we have a big bullseye on us, but we’re excited to get going.”
This spring, enthusiasm remains high with the return of all but three seniors off of last year’s final four team – including the “two Bs” on the mound, Baker and Brant.
Baker, the harder thrower of the two, finished last season with a 13-5 record and 2.93 ERA. She has worked tirelessly during the offseason with her pitching coach, Kelsey Bandstra, and comes into this season with five pitches and more pinpoint control.
Brant was 12-6 with a 2.36 ERA in her freshman year on the varsity and continues to improve both her speed and presence on the mound. Her signature win remains her complete-game gem over Coleman in last year’s Quarterfinals, and starting her in that crucial game drew coaching praise for Younts from his Coleman counterpart.
“It took a couple innings to get back down to her speed,” said Coleman coach Chad Klopf after getting ousted by Holton in the Quarterfinals for the second straight year. “We’ve seen some pretty good pitching the last few weeks. Good move.”
Younts will continue to use both pitchers this spring, but he believes his team’s biggest improvement will come at the plate.
Among the big bats returning to Holton’s lineup are senior centerfielder Emily Larabee (.520 batting average, 44 stolen bases), sophomore catcher Morgan Murat (.400 average, 44 RBI) and senior outfielder Shelbey Younts (.373 average). Younts is the coach’s daughter and the younger sister of Rachel Younts, an all-state player on Holton’s 2015 team who now plays softball at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids.
“We have nine tough hitters this year, so we feel like we can be putting pressure on the other team all the time,” said Coach Younts, whose brother, Jeff, is Holton’s junior varsity coach. “I credit that to all the work these girls have done in the weight room.”
Among the other bats to watch in the Red Devils’ lineup are sophomore shortstop Kaylie Piper and seniors Courtney Slater, Micheylah Ross and Alicia Dykman.
The excitement surrounding Holton softball is evident all over town, starting with a successful golf outing in September and a breakfast fundraiser in March. Recently Holton, despite being one of the smallest schools in the Muskegon area, ran away with MLive’s first area “Team of the Week” poll with 5,381 votes – more than 61 percent of the total votes cast.
The team bonded further on a spring break trip to Gulf Shores, Ala., where, among other things, the Red Devils watched South Alabama’s college team play – an experience that made the Red Devils even more excited to get started.
Baker, who plans to attend Grand Valley State this fall, is determined to enjoy every minute of her final sports season at Holton, which she hopes will end one game later than the past two springs – in the Division 4 championship game on June 17.
She is one of many three-sport athletes (volleyball, basketball, softball) on Holton’s roster who have formed a special bond over the past four years of wins and losses and ups and downs.
“We have spent a lot of time together, and we are really close,” Baker said. “A lot of little girls in Holton really look up to us, which is pretty cool. We just want to finish strong.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Holton players cheer on a teammate during last season’s Division 4 Semifinal while Mikaela Baker preps in the on-deck circle. (Middle) Catcher Morgan Murat takes a swing against Indian River Inland Lakes.
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.