By Calli Newberry
On any given day, local softball fans can watch one of the top teams in the state play without having to leave the Blue Water Area.
In this week’s Michigan High School Softball Coaches Association’s rankings, Richmond led in the No. 2 spot for Division 3, joined by Algonac (No. 4) and Almont (No. 5), while North Branch and Marysville each earned honorable mention for Division 2.
Last night, two of those teams squared off as North Branch traveled to Richmond for a doubleheader. While the reigning state champions defended their home field in a 9-0 shutout for game one, the Broncos managed to battle back and lead much of game two, despite falling 9-6.
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“We got blown out in the first game and then to come back for a 9-6 game where we were up for most of it, that’s perseverance,” North Branch head coach Alyssa Welling said. “If I want to teach my kids anything, it’s perseverance.”
And that perseverance will be key at the end of this month as teams enter the postseason.
“League is nice to have, but we use all of these games as opportunities for the big leagues,” Welling said. “We’re waiting for the postseason to get here, so games like today when we get to face awesome pitching, awesome batting, and awesome fielding in Richmond, that just gets us better prepared for what we’re going to see once the postseason gets here.”
Richmond head coach Howard Stuart agreed, saying that the depth of the BWAC is great preparation for his already experienced team.
“Algonac’s really good, I’m sure Almont’s really good, and I think North Branch is pretty darn good,” Stuart said. “I think in the end, we’re going to be good. We might even be better than last year’s team. But that’s really how they mesh. We don’t really know how that’s going to work out until we put them under pressure.”
So far the Blue Devils seem to be handling the pressure just fine, even the young ones, like freshman Katie Shuboy who threw 27 strikeouts between the two games last night. Or fellow freshman Emmi Hildreth who had two RBI with a 2-for-3 performance at the plate.
And of course, they have senior leaders with state championship experience to follow, such as Lauren Creon who hit a two-run homer to extend Richmond’s lead to 9-6 in the top of the seventh. Or Piper Clark who went 2-for-3, including a pair of doubles for three RBI.
But according to Stuart, it’s the team’s leadership off the field that seems to matter more.
“The captains got together and all of a sudden the team came out and tied the game up and the [eighth] inning scored seven runs [Tuesday night against Yale]. It’s the kids doing it more than we’re doing it.” Stuart said. “We have four coaches and each of them has a job. One of them is the ‘ra ra’ person.”
Stuart said each coach takes turns being the “ra ra” person, but it’s most effective when the players take on that role instead.
“Each coach has a shot at it and I think it works, they can motivate for a while, but when a kid motivates them, it’s really effective,” Stuart said. “There’s some captains that really, really want to win.”
North Branch’s lineup showed its desire to win in that second game especially, out-hitting Richmond 14-8, including two home runs.
Freshman Emily Brinker sent the first one out for a two-run shot in the bottom of the fifth to bring the Broncos within one, 6-5. Macie Bugg then hit the second, a solo homer to center field in the bottom of the sixth.
“[Bugg] has been with me for the last four years and that was her first home run, so for that to happen, every single person on that bench feels for her and they know that she only has a month left and her career is over,” Welling said. “You can’t get any better than that.”
Sophomore Cate Welch went 3-for-4 with two RBI and a double as well, while juniors Jasmine Mauk and Natasha Bickel each went 2-for-4.
“In the second game the strike zone was a little bit tighter, so we knew they were going to be our pitches…We had better eyes at the plate,” Welling said. “We saw more balls go by us and then lock in on the balls that were right in our wheelhouse. We were a little more aggressive because we were more sure of the strike zone.”
The Broncos will take on Imlay City for another conference game on Friday, this time on their home field, while Richmond will travel to Unionville-Sebewaing.