USA, Nikki Bauer return to D4 final, defeat Morenci, 12-3
East Lansing – Nobody on Morenci’s softball team was alive the last time the school reached the state semifinals in 1994.
By contrast, Unionville-Sebewaing Area had six players who played in a state championship game just a year ago.
The experience gap was evident on Friday as the Patriots overcame a slow start, then finished strong to blow out Morenci, 12-3, in the Division 4 semifinals at Michigan State University.
The defending champion Patriots (35-7) will now move on to their fourth straight championship game and eighth in 11 years against Indian River Inland Lakes at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at MSU’s Secchia Stadium. Inland Lakes beat Holton, 2-0, in the other semifinal.
Only four other programs have made the softball finals at least four years in a row. Bay City All Saints (1987-91) and Kalamazoo Christian (1996-2000) share the record of five consecutive trips to the finals. Stevensville Lakeshore (1995-98) and Harper Woods Regina (2004-07) went four consecutive years.
The Patriots have also been in the semifinals 11 years in a row.
"It helps us a lot," junior shortstop Marisa Morton said. "The nerves are down. We’ve been here before. We know what we have to do and just go."
Of course, not every USA player has big-game experience to lean upon. For those players, the advice from those who have been there is a huge plus.
"I just tell them to do what they do, because they’re so successful when they don’t think about everything that’s going on around them," said senior pitcher Nikki Bauer, the only Patriot who is going to the championship game for the fourth time. "They just do what they can do and what they’ve been taught."
Bauer helped USA return to the final by striking out eight and allowing six hits and no walks as a pitcher. As a batter, she went 2-for-3 with a team-leading 3 RBI.
"In the summer, I don’t really hit, so I kind of lost my swinging," said Bauer, who has signed with Stanford University. "I just got it back."
USA is trying to become more than just a great small-school program. The Patriots lost in the Division 3 finals in 2013 and 2014 before winning in Division 4 last year.
"This season we played better competition and we’ve done well against them," Bauer said. "It’s so rewarding to play teams that are out of our division, like Division 1 and Division 2 teams."
The Patriots had to draw upon the experience of playing in tough games when Morenci took a 2-1 lead in the second inning on an infield single by Hannah Borton that scored Angela Davis and Mikayla Price.
In the bottom of the second, Bauer drove the ball to the base of the fence in left-center field with the bases loaded to score three runs, giving the Patriots a 4-2 lead.
Borton’s third RBI of the game came on a single in the fourth, getting Morenci within 4-3.
The Patriots earned some breathing room with a three-run fifth. USA put up five more runs in the sixth to make it a rout. The highlight was a two-run double by Alexis Cady.
"I looked halfway through the game," said 44th-year coach Kay Johnson, who coached Morenci to back-to-back Class C championships in 1985 and 1986. "They had a lot of two-out runs. We were just that close."
The Bulldogs (25-15) may not have to wait 22 years this time around to make a return visit to the semis, as their starting lineup had three freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and one senior. Morenci has reached the quarterfinals three consecutive years.
"It’s good to have the experience here," Johnson said. "Even being in the quarterfinals three years in a row, we weren’t afraid to be there. We were used to being there. It would be nice to bring them back again, and they can settle in."
Indian River Inland Lakes 2, Holton 0
Cloe Mallory didn’t have her favorite bat and didn’t see her favorite pitch.
She made do anyway, hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning to produce all of the game’s runs.
Mallory’s main bat was ruled illegal before the game, failing to pass a compression test. Using her backup stick, she slammed a two-run homer over the right-center field fence in the first inning to produce the only runs. Precious Delos Santos was on base after getting hit by a pitch.
"I had to switch to my old bat," said Mallory, a junior who is a Central Michigan University commit. "I was just so thankful I could mentally get through that. They (test) because it’s states. I tried blocking it out as much as I could."
As for the pitch, it wasn’t exactly in Mallory’s wheelhouse.
"It was a higher pitch," she said. "I’m usually weaker at higher pitches. I made it work. I knew I had to come out strong."
That she did, striking out the side in the top of the first before clearing the fence in the bottom of the inning.
Mallory made the lead hold up, as she pitched a two-hitter and struck out 13, not allowing a runner to pass second base.
Holton coach Kirk Younts had pitcher Mikaela Baker intentionally walk Mallory the next two times she came to the plate, even loading the bases with two outs in the fifth.
"I wish I’d have done that the first time, but you’ve got to go after it a little bit," Younts said. "She single-handedly beat us. She had their runs and struck us out a bunch. She was on, and she’s a great player."
Baker also pitched a two-hitter.
It’s only the second time than Inland Lakes has reached a state championship game in any sport. The 1998 baseball team lost to Southgate Aquinas, 9-3, in the Division 4 title game.