D1 SOFTBALL FINALS: James’ squibber is game-winner for Regina in extra innings, as Saddlelites beat Howell to win 7th title
EAST LANSING — It was the sort of game that was going to come down to one little bobble, one little squibber, one little crack in the defensive armor.
And it did.
Warren Regina got the benefit of an infield error to start the bottom of the eighth inning of Saturday’s Division 1 championship game, and Adrianna James capitalized, bringing home the winning run from third with an infield single off the pitcher’s glove, and giving the Saddlelites a 3-2 win, and the championship.
Given how close it was all game, there was a ton of pressure.
“It was definitely nerve-racking,” James said. “We were all in the dugout shaking. I actually peeled my nail polish off, I was so nervous. It paid off. That’s the best feeling.”
Warren Regina won its seventh state title, and first since 2015, while coach Diane Laffey — the state’s all-time winningest softball coach (1,212 wins) — remained perfect in finals appearances. The Saddlelites have won titles in 1989, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2015 and 2018 under Laffey’s watch.
“One of the most exciting, I’ll tell ya. One of the most exciting,” said Laffey, who’s experienced pressure in a title game like this before. “We went 17 (innings) the first time (against White Lake Lakeland). I said that. If we’re going to go extras, I’d rather have eight than 17.”
For the Highlanders (35-4), it was a second straight heartbreaking finish in the final four, short of winning their first title.
“I say it when districts start all the time, that there’s a reason they don’t have a Super Bowl in Major League Baseball, because anything can happen in one game,” Howell coach Ron Pezzoni said. “When you don’t have a ton of talent, I guess that’s a good thing, and when you’re the best team, sometimes that’s a scary thing. Give Regina all the credit in the world. They had a ton of stuff go their way, and they figured out a way to win.”
For the Saddlelites, it was a much sweeter feeling after losing to eventual champion Caledonia in the semifinals a year ago.
“We have so many young kids on this team. We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores. This is big. The fact that they could come and play on this big stage and take care of things, it’s huge,” Laffey said, pointing to the leadership of captains Marisa Muglia and Leah Munson, two of her five seniors. “The kids respect her (Muglia) so much that she’s a real leader, a positive leader. And she’s been real good with the freshmen and sophomores. She’s just tried to guide them along. Just outstanding. Her and Leah both.”
The Saddlelites never trailed in the game, getting ahead early.
Jackqueline Jozefczyk doubled in two runs to give Regina (30-11) a 2-0 lead in the second inning, but Howell got one run back in the fifth, on AJ Militello’s RBI double to center, and tied it up in the sixth on Maddie Springer’s sacrifice fly.
They just couldn’t get much else against Marisa Muglia, who struck out 12, despite putting traffic on the bases.
“I mean, we were hitting her all day. I mean, Skye (Grant) hit a ball off the top of the fence that missed by two feet. (Maddie) Gillett crushed one,” Pezzoni said. “We were on her. We were on her all day, and we couldn’t get a big ball to drop.”
The Saddlelites didn’t get much big to drop, either, with neither of the balls put in play in the game-winning rally leaving the infield.
Muglia led off the eighth with a slow roller toward the bag at second base that was fielded cleanly. But Muglia beat out a low throw that wasn’t handled, putting the potential go-ahead runner on base. Her courtesy runner, Jenna Holt, went first-to-third on a sacrifice bunt by Mia Konyvka when she realized the Highlanders (36-4) did not have anyone covering the bag at third.
“I looked over and saw the base was empty, because the third baseman fielded the ball. … I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to go, because I might not get a chance like this again,’” Holt said. “I still can’t believe this just happened.”
Howell walked Abby Hornburger and Kiley Dulapa intentionally to load the bases and set up a force at any base, but James squibbed the ball between the pitching circle and first base, ensuring no defender had time to throw Holt out at the plate.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. What’s going to happen? I cannot strike out again.’ Because previous to that I had two strikeouts. I was just freaking out. I just took a deep breath,” James said. “A few, actually. I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’ve just got to get the job done.’ That’s the biggest key — you’ve got to do your job. My dad’s a coach. He’s always told me, ‘You do your job, no matter if you’re on the bench or playing.’”
Pezzoni was not especially happy with the way the umpiring crew did its job, pointing to several key calls that cost the Highlanders.
“If it’s good or bad, I’m not an umpire guy. I’ve probably never said a word about an umpire to you guys all year long, but we had a kid with 17 home runs get two strikes, we had another kid with 17 home runs have a change-up at her eyes called, ring her up on strike three. The last inning, I went up to Kara Johnson and said ‘You get on base, we win.’ She got on base, and the guy rung her up at first,” the coach said. “It’s a shame. Like I said, I don’t like to blame things on the umpire, and we still had chances to win, but it seemed like every time we got something going, we got pushed back. It’s a shame. I told him before he ran off the field — actually during the game, I said ‘We worked too hard for this. You just gotta do better.’ Regina I give all the credit to. These kids, I’m super proud of. They battle their butt off, they work as hard as any team. It just bugs me that that’s part of the deal.”
Undoubtedly, the disappointment will be motivation for a return trip to East Lansing, as it was for both teams this season.
“Yeah. That’s what we do. I remember last year, sitting over here, talking about coming back this year. We will,” Pezzoni said. “We’ve got some big leaders we’ve gotta replace, but we’ll do it. We’ve got great players, some sophomores, juniors. We’ll be here.”