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REGIONAL PREVIEW: Nationally-ranked Millington Cardinals ignoring exorbitantly high external expectations, staying humble as they chase a title

By: Matthew B. Mowery, June 7, 2019, 10:00 pm

As each succeeding week goes on in the postseason, the pressure just mounts, as the stakes get higher and higher.

For some teams, though, ones that have been dealing with the expectations that come along with being tabbed the favorites, that pressure isn’t new. 

It’s been there from the start.

That’s certainly true for the Cardinals of Millington, the undisputed, prohibitive favorite to win the championship in Division 3, after losing virtually no one off last year’s squad that finished runner-up to Coloma. 

Perhaps the people buying into that the least is the Cardinals themselves.

“Oh, we heard it last year. ‘Don’t worry: You’re not graduating anybody.’ Well, that’s not reality. And for anybody to just say — and I made sure the girls knew that right away. We can’t have that mindset. Nothing’s given,” Millington coach Greg Hudie said just before the start of the postseason. “The game doesn’t know who’s supposed to win the game. The ball doesn’t know which way it’s supposed to bounce. We talked about just playing. We gotta just play. And we’ve gotta play well to win. It’s not going to be just given to us. Nobody’s going to come to the field and say ‘You guys already won, but we’ll go ahead and pitch to you. We’re going to see everybody’s best — EVERYBODY’s best — and if we keep teams in games, and then they start believing in themselves. And you never know what can happen.”

The Cardinals (33-2-1) go into the regional tournament at Otisville LakeVille Memorial ranked No. 1 in Michigan — as they have been all year long — as well as No. 22 in the nation by MaxPreps. 

No pressure, right?

“I don’t think we really dwell on it as a team. We have our own expectations, obviously, but as far as any outside expectations, we don’t worry about. We can only do what we can do. 

We talk a lot about how failure can creep up on you. You gotta be lucky in the postseason, too. It’s not just the greatest players and the greatest teams that win. You gotta have luck,” Hudie said. 

“As a coach, it’s very stressful, but I try to hide it very well from the girls. Play it down as much as possible. But, yeah, everybody keeps saying it. You hear it from everybody. Older people that come from the community that maybe don’t understand the whole mental part of the game, sometimes overspeak. ‘Oh, you guys should win it.’ Yeah, that’s our hopes and dreams, but we’ll see how it goes. I don’t want to define our season on winning a state championship — we’ve had so much fun and so much success with these girls. Is our No. 1 goal winning a state championship? Absolutely. But reality is, we could come to close at districts or regionals. I never say ‘Hey, we’ll see this team in the state finals.’ We don’t know if we’ll be there. We all talk like that, and keep ourselves in check, and stay very humble. I think that’s the key, staying humble. If you come to the field not ready to play, you’re going to get beat.”

So far, that — getting beaten — hasn’t happened too often, despite the Cardinals playing the toughest schedule they’ve ever assembled. 

“If not for a couple of rainouts, it would be even tougher,” said Hudie of the schedule, which featured wins over top D1 programs like Lake Orion and Howell, D2 programs like Escanaba and North Branch, and D3 programs like Gladstone. “I think it’s a good mixture, too, because you never know what you’re going to see. When you start making that run, you might see a pitcher that’s throwing 53, and drops the bottom out of it. Or you might see 63. So we’ve gotta make sure we’ve got a good dose of everything, and can be successful at whatever we do see.”

Their only losses entering postseason play came against Clarkston — at the time ranked No. 1 in Division 1 — and to Eaton Rapids, which is now ranked No. 1 in Division 2. Both were by one run. The 1-1 tie came against D1 honorable mention Grand Haven at the BackYard Challenge the weekend before districts, the morning before the Cardinals knocked off Division 1’s No. 3-ranked Howell, 8-1. The Cards weren’t even sure they’d be attending the tournament after an unexpected tragedy. 

“We didn’t play real great this morning. We had a loss in our softball family, so I’m missing some starters. They’re at a funeral. One of my JV girls, one of my travel girls, her mom died. Thirty-three years old. Her funeral was today. The whole program went to the showing yesterday … we didn’t actually know if we were going to be here today,” Hudie said that afternoon. “We’re just here to enjoy each other.”

That’s been the theme for Millington over this recent run of success: A family atmosphere, where fun is almost as important as the trophies they’ve racked up.

Now, granted, the four straight league titles in the Tri-Valley Conference’s East Division are nice, as are the four straight district crowns. Their four-year starters — pitcher Gabbie Sherman, catcher Sydney Bishop, center fielder Leah Denome and second baseman McKenna Slough — have been there for all of them.

But, like all high school careers, that four years has seemed to fly by, now that it’s almost come to a close.

Hudie is taking every chance he can to sit back and savor this, his ninth season as head coach.

“We just talked yesterday, and I was messing with them. Talked a little bit about where we are, and said ‘Yeah, next weekend’s districts.’ They just looked at me like, ‘Oh, my God …’ We’re just having so much fun. Now we’ve just gotta play together to keep playing another day. This is by far the fastest season — obviously, success helps it. But I think more than success is the attitude. Just the camaraderie,” Hudie said at the BackYard Challenge. 

“These girls are like my daughters. And, actually, the video camera’s around here, somewhere. I told the girls, ‘We’re at practice, you’re just hanging out, put that camera on. Turn it on. Every little stupid thing, let’s enjoy it, what the game’s about, and that way we’ll have some memories.’ Because it does fly by, and the next thing you know, you’re like ‘Shoot, I don’t have any pictures, I don’t have any video …’ 

“But yeah, as far as a group … this can never be re-done. I’ve never been part of a state championship team or anything, and I don’t know how it feels, but I just can’t see another team that gets along as well as this one. I’m sure there are (ones) close out there, but they’re sisters, and we have so much fun. As a coach, and a bystander, to watch it, it’s unreal. I don’t plan on quitting this year, but it sets a bar high for what follows. It’s going to be hard to come back with new players and new girls.”

When this group does graduate — and, mind you, it’s a group that’s gone 147-17-1 over the last four years, entering play Saturday — it will be hard to duplicate, hard to rebuild. 

But not impossible. 

“Our younger girls are phenomenal. Our JV went 21-1. Shoot, they only lost to our varsity this year. They played varsity teams this year. They beat honorable mention teams,” Hudie said. “So we’re going to have good teams, but the girls themselves, if you’re around them — you’ll see it. This is what we’re meant to do, and we’re going to have fun doing.”