Lake Orion’s transfer ace gets crash course in Clarkston rivalry, as Dragons split DH, handing top-ranked Wolves a first loss
CLARKSTON — If Sarah Conley hadn’t figured out the intensity level of the Clarkston-Lake Orion rivalry before she took the field for Wednesday’s make-up doubleheader between Oakland Activities Association unbeatens, it couldn’t have taken long to sink in.
And it certainly was cemented when she and her Lake Orion teammates came from behind to win the opener, 7-5, handing the No. 1-ranked Wolves their first loss of the season, setting off a Dragons celebration like they’d just won a district.
“I picked it up in the first inning. I was like, ‘This is going to be a GREAT game.’ I knew it from the start. It was amazing. Super fun,” said the senior pitcher, who transferred in to Lake Orion from Kansas. “One hundred percent, my team was set on coming here, and doing our best to win this game. In order for us to do that, we had to all around be a great team.”
The Dragons (16-1, 8-1 OAA Red) were an all-around great team in the opener, but that slipped a little bit, as they committed five errors, helping Clarkston (15-1, 5-1 OAA Red) rebound for a 10-1 victory in the nightcap.
“It was a let-down the second game, and I understand that. You play your heart out the first game, and you win a big game and you lose focus. I’m going to cut them a little bit of slack there. We talked about it for a minute, that’s all we’re going to do,” said Lake Orion coach Joe Woityra, admitting the first game was a bit of a confidence boost for a team that maybe feels a little overlooked.
“Confidence, yes. You know, we’ve been talking about it, not getting much love. We were 15-0 going in. It’s hard when you plan it out, because you’ve got to play your league games, and you look at who should be good, who’s not good. We’ve played a few decent teams, and so have they. It’s a confidence-booster, for sure. It shows them that they can play with — that’s a great team, obviously. We work hard, we work every day, and I expect to win every game. I really do. It doesn’t matter who it’s against.”
It certainly helps that the Dragons have a couple of star players at the top of the lineup, ones that facilitated the comeback in the opener. Tessa Nuss was 3-for-4, scoring three runs in the game, while Paytin Shadaia had a two-run homer in the fifth to get the Dragons within a run, then cranked a two-run triple in the seventh to put Lake Orion ahead.
Of all the players who suited up for the twinbill, Conley had the least experience with the rivalry, but she’s certainly not inexperienced.
“She’s played a lot of travel ball down in Kansas. The word I use is, she’s battle-tested. Some of our girls aren’t. And the key is you can’t win a big game unless you’ve been in one. Some of our girls’ eyes were pretty big at the beginning, and they were like ‘Oh, my gosh …’” Woityra said. “As far as Sarah goes, obviously you don’t have that all the time. … We got lucky, and she moved in. Her demeanor is just even-keeled.”
Conley was a second-team all-state utility player for the Trojans of Andover (Kansas) High School, about 20 minutes east of Wichita. She and her family moved to Southeast Michigan this year, after her mom got a job here, as part of the Koch Industries purchase of Guardian Glass, formerly owned by the late Bill Davidson. Her father, Bill, who had been her softball coach, got a job teaching in the Lake Orion district.
“Coming here, it was difficult, coming from 1,000 miles away, from friends and other people. Coming here and meeting whole new coaches, whole new players, it was just a great opportunity for me, especially because I’m going to college,” said Conley, who will play softball in college at Oklahoma Panhandle State. “But it’s an opportunity for me to live and learn, and play against different people, people who are going D-I, people who are going to Michigan. I would never see that back home, and I think it’s a great start to a new season, and a new year.”
Woityra knows a golden opportunity dropped in his lap, adding Conley to the pitching rotation with the two returning hurlers he had.
“It’s so hard when someone has to move when they’re a senior. This is the second or third time we’ve had that happen. Just the adjustment, and moving away from their friends," he said. "First thing I did when I heard she was coming in was I called my seniors and said ‘Call her, take her to lunch. Talk to her and whatever.’ She’s got a unique personality. She’s funny, she’s a little goofy. But when push comes to shove, and it’s time to get serious, she buckles down, and is serious. I’m happy to have her — but I’m happy to have everybody on my squad. Everybody’s got a role. That’s what I tell them. A couple of them, they didn’t get in until the very end, and one says ‘Oh, my voice is gone almost. But I’m doing my job.’ I said, ‘Well, you are.’”
Lake Orion got out to a 1-0 lead when Conley doubled home Nuss in the first, but Clarkston responded with a four-run third inning, when Nyah Ansel led off with a homer, then Sierra Kersten drove in one with a groundout, and Olivia Warrington brought home two more with a single. The two teams traded runs in the fourth — Ansel’s RBI groundout evening out Courtney Kolp’s RBI single — but the Dragons would score the game’s final five runs.
Shadaia’s laser-shot homer in the fifth made it 5-4, then both teams were looking at the top of their lineups coming up in the seventh to settle the one-run game.
“We had 9-1-2 coming up, and we knew they were at the top. The key was our No. 9 hitter (Rosemarie Babicz) getting on base, and then getting to the top. We’re super tough one through six, and our seventh batter (Kolp) put the ball in play super hard every single time today. We’re getting better, and they’re confident now,” Woityra said. “That’s not an ideal situation, with the top of their order coming up — how many comeback wins have they had already?”
After Babicz’s infield single to lead off the seventh, Nuss singled, then Shadaia scored both with a triple, scoring on a single by Conley to make it a 7-5 game. After she was relieved by a courtesy runner, Woityra sent Conley behind the dugout to get warmed up again for the bottom of the inning. After she did, she squatted down on her haunches, just trying to collect herself.
“At that point, I was calming myself down, and getting ready for that last inning. I knew I had to go out there and throw my best, push through, and I had to take my three minutes, do whatever I could do to calm myself down, not overhype,” she said. “When that happens, it just turns into a mess. So when I did that, it just made me more calm and collected, so I could throw that inning.”
Conley got the first two batters to pop out, then Cady doubled just inside the first-base bag, bringing the potential tying run to the plate. But Conley induced a pop-up into foul territory, and Kolp settled under it for the catch, setting off the brief celebration.
“I did (feel confident). Just a couple of days ago, (we had that against) Millington, which is very good, too, and they produced, and we ended up winning. Yeah, I’m confident those kids can score any time. And they will — because the first three or four hitters can hit, can do a lot of good things,” Clarkston coach Don Peters said. “Hopefully, each team learns from this, and says ‘I’ll do this or this differently, do this a little better.’”
The Dragons’ euphoria didn’t last long, as the two teams traded first-inning runs to open the nightcap, then the Wolves pulled ahead on an Abbey Tolmie RBI single in the second, and pushed it to 3-1 before blowing it open with a five-run fourth inning. The big blow of that inning was a bases-loaded triple — helped by Nuss getting her foot stuck under the fence in center field — by Cady, who added a solo homer in the sixth for a five-RBI game.
Clarkston put pressure on the Dragons by swapping in some faster slap hitters at the bottom of the order, and forcing five errors — four of them in the fourth inning alone — in the nightcap.
“Yeah, and that’s obviously what we wanted to do was change it up, and see how they reacted to the speed. We’ve got three or four of those kids that we brought in, obviously, are very fast. I saw one swinging away, and I go ‘Uhhhh ….’ Hey, I’ve got girls that can do that,” Peters said with a laugh. “Well, the other thing it does is it puts pressure on who’s going to start. We’re going up to Alpena, and we’re going to play a couple of teams up there, and I’m just going to keep making it a battle for starting positions.”
The two teams won’t meet again until districts, but that should be another of their yearly classic meetings, if they do.
“They’re good, we were just a little better today, maybe a little luckier,” Woityra said of the first game. “Come district time, we’ve gotta work and beat (Waterford) Mott and Oxford, and they’ve gotta beat Kettering, and we’ll have another game like that.”