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Hartland opens season by reprising last year’s D1 semifinal win over rival Howell

By: Matthew B. Mowery, April 3, 2019, 10:20 pm

HOWELL — The last time the Hartland Eagles softball team got together on the field for celebratory group hug, it was last June, at Michigan State’s Secchia Stadium, after beating the same opponent they faced on Wednesday.

Needless to say, this group hug — after a 4-2, season-opening road win over rival Howell on Wednesday — was considerably more subdued than the one that took place after the Eagles’ 6-4 win in the Division 1 semifinals.

But it still was a good way to open the season, on a chilly, windy April afternoon.

“It’s great. We get confidence, and I feel like when we get confidence, we play better than we even would otherwise,” said sophomore Kelsey Zampa, who had the game’s biggest defensive play, a diving catch in the sixth to keep the bases loaded. “So exciting. We have so much confidence, and we’re so excited for this season.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Highlights from this game will be included in this week’s State Champs! High School Sports Show, at 9 a.m. Sunday on Fox Sports Detroit.]

Still, the celebration was fleeting, because the two teams have to finish the home-and-home series with a contest at Hartland on Thursday.

And because whichever of these teams won, they weren’t going to act like they’d just won the World Series — not for a rivalry win in April that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really do a tremendous amount to impact the true goals of a pair of teams that could easily meet in the semifinals again.

“It’s the first day out, and it’s two good teams. I like our team, and we’ll be fine. … You almost hate to play them (this early). I wish they’d change, the KLAA, because when Lakeland was in it, we used to play Lakeland first and Hartland second, and that was always what it came down to. You’re coming out right after these kids were all in Florida three days ago, four days ago, and now they’re playing a big game,” Howell coach Ron Pezzoni agreed. “You’re right, it doesn’t mean a lot in the big scheme of things — I’m sure they have the same goals that we do. Ours are June in Lansing, not April in Howell.”

As the bracket works out, the two teams wouldn’t meet in the postseason until the Thursday semifinals. While Hartland is slated to host both districts and regionals, then head to the Novi quarterfinal, Howell goes to Ann Arbor Skyline for districts, then hosts regionals, and would go through the quarterfinal at Chelsea.

That’s eons away, yet, though.

Just like last year’s semifinals are a quantum leap from where these teams are now — both lost considerable chunks of their offense to graduation, forcing new players into new roles, while former assistant Taylor Wagner replaces the departed Bob Greene in the head coach’s role for the Eagles.

There had to be an ‘Awww, geeez …’ moment when the former Eastern Michigan catcher realized her first game as coach was against a top-notch rival, right?

“You get a little bit of that. Mostly it’s like, ‘OK, let’s bring it.’ You’ve gotta be prepared every single game, and that’s how you should approach the season, anyway. This is always a game you circle anyway, so you might as well start with it. You start with a back-to-back, two days. Teams are in the same situation, and they did a very good job with that. Their mindset wasn’t nervous. It was ‘We’re excited,’” Wagner said. “There’s no easing into the season. That’s for both teams. These are two really, really good teams, and for both of us to start with each other, you’re going to see a lot from both teams. They enjoyed it. Their adrenaline was high, and they loved it.”

And Wagner’s adrenaline?

“It’s a little bit different feeling, because playing — as a catcher you’re in the game, so the nerves are there. Here, you trust your girls, trust their training,” she said with a chuckle. “I think I was personally everywhere on the spectrum, in terms of emotions. But mostly just excitement. We’re outside. This is a beautiful day, a beautiful field.”

It probably helped the new head coach’s nerves, too, that her Eagles jumped out in front, taking a 1-0 lead in the second inning on back-to-back doubles by Jordan Piatek and Miranda Millington — the latter knocked down by the stiff wind from left that kept it from carrying to the Howell outfielder. The Eagles made it 3-0 with Brooke Cowan’s home run over the right-field fence in the third.

“She got every single piece of that,” Wagner said. “Those are situations where you just need a little base hit, and she goes above and beyond.”

Cowan gave partial credit to something other than herself: Her new bat.

“I just got a new bat, so I was really happy,” she laughed. “I’ve had (the old one) for a few years, and it was just time to get a new one. … I love her (the old one), but yeah, I like this one.”

The Highlanders cut it to 3-1 in the fourth, when A.J. Militello led off with a double, and came around to score on consecutive groundouts by Maddie Gillette and Avery Wolverton.

Howell had its chance to tie it up in the sixth, when Megan Keough and Maddy Heilner led off the inning with singles. The Highlanders appeared to have loaded the bases with a bloop single into shallow by Miletello that fell between a pair of Hartland defenders, but the umpire ruled it an infield fly, leaving the lead two runners at second and third, and giving the Eagles a first out in the inning.

Gillett made it a one-run game, 3-2, with an RBI single, then took second on the throw home. With the base open, the Eagles chose to walk the power-hitting Wolverton, but Maddie Springer followed that with a line shot into right field that could’ve cleared the bases, had it gotten past Zampa.

It did not.

“I was like ‘It’s done. It’s done,’” the sophomore said of what would’ve happened had the sinking liner — headed toward the right field foul line — eluded her. “I was ready for that perfect line drive. I had a similar catch last year, and I was so excited. I just wanted to make any catch I could, and contribute anything I could to the team. …. I was giving everything I had, because I knew it was bases loaded, and I knew that as soon as I caught that ball, I had to pop right back up and throw it home.”

Those were the same kind of catches that Zampa made last year, as a freshman.

“She was making those plays, so we know we have a solid rock out there. With this wind, she was adjusting,” Wagner said. “She’s just a tough ballplayer, that’s the thing. She’s gonna give all out, every time. I think she just about took her face off on the fence over here. So her aggressiveness is super high — having those kind of game-changing plays like we had over here, she’s going to bring that all season.”

Both Howell runners stayed put on the play, and Hartland ace Rachel Everett induced an inning-ending ground ball on batter later to get out of the jam with just one run allowed.

“We just gotta take care of ourselves. She made a good play, but we still should’ve tied it up, though,” Pezzoni said. “I know they were playing everything that way, because of the wind, and because Rachel throws everything on the outside corner. I probably thought it had a pretty good chance. Obviously our runner did — we gotta tag up on that ball, and tie the game. If it drops she scores, if they catch it she scores — if she tags up. …

“That’s the thing. You gotta give her credit for a great play, but then you have the other play that’s forgotten after the catch, and that’s did they call it infield fly or didn’t they? … Nobody heard him call it.”

Threat averted, the Eagles added an insurance run in the top of the seventh, cashing in on a one-out walk by Everett with an RBI single by Delaney Robeson to make it 4-2. Everett made that lead stand up by sitting the Highlanders down in order in the bottom of the inning, finishing with eight strikeouts. Molly Carney went the distance for Howell, striking out seven.