Junior Hitter's Spirit, Skill Give Lawton Lift

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

September 25, 2019

LAWTON — Olivia Cramer wears her friends proudly — on her leg.

When she is not wearing a blade to play volleyball or basketball, the Lawton High School junior wears a prosthetic, but it’s not just any leg.

“I’ve had pictures of my friends on it for a couple years, and there’s the homecoming court my freshman year, softball game, at work,” she said.

While the decoration of the prosthetic leg is a novelty, the need for the limb certainly isn’t.

Cramer was born with non-genetic proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a condition that has resulted in her right leg measuring inches shorter than her left.

It is an uncommon condition that affects about 1 in every 200,000 children, according to statistics from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The prosthetic leg assists with everyday life. But when it comes to athletics, she wears a blade, similar to those worn by runners.

“We call it my running blade,” Cramer said. “Mine is designed a little differently than an amputee because I still have my leg bones and foot.”

The custom-made blade, officially called the Freedom Innovations Catapult, is made of carbon fiber and has a rubber tread on the bottom so it will not damage the court.

“It’s about a two-week process and it was a little bit of a challenge to make,” said Tim Darling, a certified prosthetist at Hanger Clinic in Kalamazoo who fashioned the leg and blade.

He also was instrumental in adding the photos. “She provided the photos printed on a T-shirt and we used materials to reinforce it and then used an acrylic lamination,” Darling added.

Instead of Velcro straps to keep the leg attached, Cramer has two dials that tighten the leg.

“It has string made of Kevlar and you can tighten them so I don’t have to have straps covering my leg anymore,” she said. “Before, it was just Velcro and came loose a lot.”

Darling said it is a relatively new process for a prosthetic.

100 Percent

“Working with her is humbling,” Lawton volleyball coach Megan McCorry said. “When you see someone with a physical disability like that and you see that same person is also the most positive and most encouraging, it really makes you do a gut check.

“It gives you some perspective in life that what you have going on may not really be that bad, and you need to work harder at putting your best foot forward.”

Cramer was pulled up from junior varsity during the District last year and practiced but did not play.

This season, she sees court time and, “She’s honestly one of those kids that you can’t not have on your team,” McCorry said.

“I mean she is always 100-percent positive. She is going to be the loudest one on the court, loudest one on the bench. She’s always supporting her team, and she’s just so determined to get better individually and make her teammates better.”

Since she jumps off her stronger left leg, the blade does not give Cramer any advantage, but at least once caused a gaffe.

“During a match, my friend Madison Lawson and I were going for a block on the outside and we fought for the block and we came back down,” Cramer said. “Madison landed on my blade and snapped it.

“We didn’t know what happened at first because there was this huge (sound) right in the middle of the match and I was like, ‘What just happened?’ We even stopped playing because of it. I went to step and my leg didn’t spring like it usually does.”

The junior said her teammates are very supportive.

“She holds herself accountable for everything she does,” senior Gabi Martinez said. “Everything she does basically makes us realize she can do everything we can do. It doesn’t stop her from anything.

“We do watch out for her leg to make sure she doesn’t hurt it, but usually even if she falls down, she gets right back up and she’s usually the one picking everybody else up.”

Cramer’s mother, Megan Cramer, said when she was pregnant, her first ultrasound showed an abnormality in the leg, so she was prepared when Olivia was born.

When learning to walk, Olivia would walk on her short leg and balance on the knee of her good leg, her mother said.

As Olivia grew older, doctors gave her mother two choices: amputation or rotationplasty (fusing the knee on her shorter leg and rotating her foot around to where her knee joint would be). That new joint is where her prosthetic would have connected.

Her mother chose neither.

“I was a young mother, and I was scared to death and I was, ‘You’re not cutting her foot off,’” she said.

They visited several hospitals and finally went to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago.

“That was the first place we went where they said let her be,” Megan said.

That is what her mother did.

“I am glad that they never had it amputated, and I never had rotationplasty,” Olivia Cramer said. “My condition is pretty rare, and because I didn’t do any of the amputation that makes me even more special than it already was, so I really appreciate it.”

She goes to the Shriners Hospital every six months for checkups and gets a new leg and blade when she outgrows the old ones.

Driving and Striving

Golf is Cramer’s true love, and she hopes to pursue it in college.

When playing, she wears her regular prosthetic, not the blade, and, last year, was captain of the school’s boys team (Lawton has no girls team).

She also played the Lakeshore Junior Golf Association tour during the summer, carrying a 12 handicap and winning the 16-18 girls division.

“Those accomplishments are all special, of course,” Lawton golf coach Barry Shanley said. “But what makes her truly remarkable is her spirit. If you didn't see her prosthetic, you would never know she even has one. 

“For now it's actually an advantage for her college goal to play on a high school boys team. The boys play from the men's tees, which is the typical length for collegiate women, so college coaches know her scores now already match what length their own players are using.”

Shanley said the only way her prosthetic affects her swing is that her hip alignment can be a little unbalanced. 

“Once she stops growing and her prosthetic is matched to her other leg permanently, there won't be any issue at all,” he said.

“Because it's difficult to keep them matched, which now can cause her some pain if she walks the typical 5.6 miles in 18 holes or the 2.8 miles for 9 holes, we wrote and received permission from the MHSAA to let her take a golf cart during matches.”

Right now, though, Cramer is focused on volleyball, with her team’s record 13-9 midway through the season. The Blue Devils will host an MHSAA Division 3 District beginning Nov. 4.

Other players on the volleyball team are senior Jessica Grear, juniors are Mackenzie Nickrent, Kiana Auton, Caitlen Romo, Josie Buchkowski, Wendy Guerra and Dezare’ Smith; and sophomores Sarah Dekoning and Lily Grear.

No matter the sport, Cramer said she follows her grandfather’s advice.

“My grandpa always has said, ‘Don’t ever say “can’t” in this household. That’s a word that’s not in our dictionary.’

“I guess that’s shaped me into who I am today, being able to persevere through all the difficulties, even though I like to think I have it just as fair as everybody else does, that we’re on an equal playing level.”

Cramer has one hope:

“I hope that if anybody sees this and is down in the dumps for any kind of condition they have, just persevere through it and prove to other people that you are better than they can ever think that you can be.”

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) Lawton’s Olivia Cramer loads for a kill attempt during a match this fall. (Middle top) Cramer’s prosthetic leg, front and back, and the blade she wears for sports. (Middle) From top left: Olivia Cramer, mother Megan Cramer, teammate Gabi Martinez and volleyball coach Megan McCorry. (Below) Cramer awaits the opponent’s serve. (Action photos by Gary Shook; prosthetic photos and head shots by Pam Shebest.)

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)