D1 SEMIS: Grant keys seventh-inning rally, as Howell outlasts Clarkston in battle of juggernaut offenses
EAST LANSING — The Howell Highlanders got their #1M4J (one more for June).
After falling in the semifinals last year, the Highlanders vowed to do everything they could just once more, in preparation for going one step further, inking that hashtag on their arms every game as a reminder.
And it paid off in Thursday night’s battle of the titans in the Division 1 semifinals, facing a Clarkston team that was just as motivated, after falling in the semis two years ago, and the quarters last season.
The Highlanders built an early lead, watched Clarkston erase it all by the sixth inning, then went out in the seventh and won it for themselves, as Skye Grant’s RBI double kick-started a three-run rally to put them over the top for a 9-6 win, and into the state finals for the first time ever.
“Well, I’d say it’s one of the most important (hits in my career). I just trusted my swing, and I know that I worked on it all season, and I was able to get my hands inside that pitch, and rip it down the third-base line,” Grant said. “It was definitely a roller-coaster, but I can honestly say we never let up. Our whole motto is ‘apply the pressure, don’t feel it.’ So tonight I think we really focused on applying the pressure, and handling it when it came at us. Making it into something great.”
It was a game that was going to make history, one way or the other.
One of these juggernauts was getting to the finals for the first time ever.
The other was going home.
Prior to this season, Clarkston had been 0-5 in semifinal appearances, most recently in 2017, while Howell was 0-2, losing there last year to Hartland.
“Thank you, Lord. It’s amazing. This team, we can do it, and we know we that we can. Our whole motto this year was, we made it here, all right, now we’ve just gotta do one more. Our motto was ‘One more for June.’ I mean, that’s why we’re here. We did one more rep than everyone else. As soon as we lost last year, it started up again. We were ready to compete, and we deserved the victory,” Howell’s AJ Militello said. “Now we gotta go out, and we’re not done yet.”
The Highlanders (36-3) will take on Warren Regina (29-11) in the Division 1 championship game at MSU’s Secchia Stadium on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
“It feels unbelievable. Tears come to my eyes, and chills all over my skin,” said Howell pitcher Molly Carney. “But it’s just like I knew we were going to do it, because it’s what we worked for all offseason. I had faith in the girls. It’s been our goal. I guess I just knew it.”
Howell built a 6-1 lead with three-run rallies in the third and fourth inning, but the Wolves chipped away at the margin with one run in the third and fourth, and a three-run rally in the fifth to make it a one-run game. They tied it in the sixth on a two-out double by Sierra Kersten, scoring Hannah Cady from first base to make it a 6-6 game.
“Sure, for a second there, you were like ‘Are you kidding?’ But I knew our team was going to come through. I just knew it. Because our energy never went down. It was just ‘All right, let’s go. Let’s compete,’” Militello said. “We just wanted to apply the pressure. That’s our big thing, just apply pressure. We wanted to play ‘Floose’ which means focused and loose. We were just like ‘Let’s beat them at the controllables. We’re beating them at attitude and effort.’”
That just meant the Highlanders had to take their turn to rally, scoring three runs in the top of the seventh to win it. Avrey Wolverton singled with one out, then Maddie Springer followed it with another single, setting up an RBI double by Skye Grant to put the Highlanders back on top. Pitcher Molly Carney gave herself a little extra breathing room by singling home two more runs.
Olivia Warrington, the starting pitcher for Clarkston, came back on to keep the Highlanders from causing any further damage. But the Wolves couldn’t answer the rally with one of their own in the bottom of the seventh, as Carney set them down in order to seal the win.
“Actually, I thought we’d shut them down and get a run, so the first score kind of took the wind out of our sails,” Clarkston coach Don Peters said. “I guess we were trying to figure out how to stop them, and they were trying to figure out how to stop us. They did a little better job stopping us.”
The Highlanders knocked Warrington out of the circle with their second three-run rally.
Maddy Gillett had a two-run single, and Springer an RBI double in the third to put Howell up 3-0, then after a Clarkston run on Kersten’s bases-loaded infield single in the bottom of the frame, added three more in the top of the fourth to make it 6-1. A.J. Militello tripled in a run, then scored on an error. Wolverton’s smash to third scored another run, making it a five-run margin.
Clarkston got one back on Nyah Ansel’s solo homer in the bottom of the fourth, then cut it to 6-3 on Warrington’s RBI single in the bottom of the fifth. Sam Wycoff drove in another run, and Ansel scored on a wild pitch to cut the lead to just one.
The Highlanders weren’t surprised in the least that Clarkston was managing to claw its way back into the game.
“Honestly, no. I went out to the mound after the third inning, and said ‘Hey guys, listen. This is Clarkston. We know they’re going to fight. They’re a good team. We belong here, but it’s going to be who gives it up, who gives it all,’” Grant said. “For Howell to come back and jump on that, it was incredible. We had so much teamwork tonight, pumping each other up. It was just amazing.”
Warren Regina 4, Bay City Western 0
EAST LANSING — It took until the seventh inning, but the Warren Regina Saddlelites finally broke through in a pitcher’s duel in the first Division 1 semifinal, scoring four runs in the top of the seventh to beat Bay City Western, 4-0.
The champions of the Detroit Catholic League, the Saddlelites (29-11) advance to the Division 1 championship game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium, facing Howell.
Regina is making its seventh appearance in the finals, and first since 2015. The Saddlelites have not lost in their previous six finals appearances.
Up until the seventh inning, it was a pitcher’s duel between Regina’s Marisa Muglia (two hits, nine strikeouts, no walks) and Western’s Adaline Ziehmer (five hits, four runs — two earned — nine strikeouts and four walks).
Muglia led the inning off with a single, and her courtesy runner, Jenna Holt, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt, and just kept running after rounding second, scoring on a throwing error. Miranda Nicholas singled in a run, and came around into scoring position on another Western throwing error. Jacqueline Jozefcyzk drove in an insurance run with a single up the middle to make it 4-0.
Muglia retired the side in order in the seventh to close out the win.