Regional reality: Trio of area high school softball teams playing for MHSAA regional titles Saturday — Negaunee, Ishpeming and Superior Central
Opening MHSAA regional games:
• Division 3 at Elk Rapids — Negaunee vs. Gladstone, 10 a.m. Saturday
• Division 4 at Bark River-Harris — Ishpeming vs. Hancock, 11 a.m. EDT; Superior Central vs. Norway, 1 p.m. EDT
MARQUETTE — It will be a big challenge for three area high school softball teams taking part in MHSAA regional tournaments on Saturday.
Two of them — Negaunee and Ishpeming — have plenty of experience at this level, with the Miners having won regional titles in 2018 and 2019.
The third, Superior Central, hasn’t been this far in at least a decade.
Negaunee takes part in the Division 3 regional at downstate Elk Rapids. The Miners play in the opening semifinal game against Gladstone at 10 a.m., followed by Grayling facing host Elk Rapids at noon. Semifinal winners square off for the regional championship at 2 p.m.
In Division 4 at Bark River-Harris, Ishpeming faces Hancock at 11 a.m. EDT in one semifinal, with SC taking on Norway at 1 p.m. in the other. Those winners play at 3 p.m. for the title.
They’re all fighting for the chance to advance to the MHSAA quarterfinals and beyond next week.
The D-3 quarterfinal is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Gaylord against the winner of Saturday’s regional being held at Traverse City St. Francis.
D-4’s quarter is at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Sault Ste. Marie against the winner of the Rudyard regional, which is bringing together teams from the eastern Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.
The state semis in Divisions 3 and 4 will be held next Friday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, with the finals the next day at the same location.
The coaches of all three area teams taking part in Saturday’s regionals agree they’ve improved significantly since the start of the season barely more than a month ago, unless you count the one weekend a couple of them played in the Spring Swing at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
“After all the snow we had at the beginning of May, we never had a chance to practice on our own field until May 15,” Hematites head coach Ben McGuire said.
“We’ve been kind of trying to find our way, and we played a whole bunch of games early without ever getting to practice outside.”
This was a bad year for all three of these youthful teams to not have that practice, since they also didn’t have a lot of varsity experience either.
“It was fun to watch our team getting better as we want along this season,” Negaunee head man Randy Carlson said. “We have a young, but talented team.”
And SC head coach Richard Swajanen was still making tweaks even at the end of the regular season.
“I moved some girls around on defense, and that was for the districts (tournament), and things were really looking better,” the Cougars coach said.
Here is a rundown on each team:
The winner of the West PAC with a perfect 12-0 record, Negaunee relies on a couple of experienced pitchers, junior Grace Nardi and senior Krista Carello, along with young hurlers in sophomore Miya Fredrickson and freshman Ainsley Brunette.
Nardi was recently named Pitcher of the Year in the West PAC, with five of her teammates also earning league honors.
“We’re pretty balanced, even with a really young team,” said Carlson, who himself was named West PAC Coach of the Year.
“The last part of the season and into the districts we were starting eight underclassmen and just one senior.
“I think we’ve really grown up through the season. This is a fun team to be around — we have a lot of high-energy kids.”
He feels he has a deep hitting lineup similar to the Miners’ regional semifinal opponent, Gladstone.
“We’re very comparable to Gladstone; they beat us 6-5 in extra innings and 5-2 when we played them,” Carlson said. “I expect a nip-and-tuck game.”
There should be plenty of competitiveness, considering that the Miners defeated Gladstone in the final both years they won a regional championship.
“The nice thing with our hitting is that nowhere in the lineup is someone not capable,” the coach said.
He mentioned sophomore Kallen Schultz — “our most consistent hitter” — sophomore Theresa Anderson and freshmen Delaney Gladwell and Cassie Feys, along with Nardi.
This is the Miners’ fifth straight Division 3 regional after never having won a district before 2018.
It’s been a bit of a struggle for the Hematites, but McGuire doesn’t mind.
“We’ve only played a couple of Division 4 teams all season,” he said. “Instead, we’ve had a bunch of Division 3 and Division 2 teams on our schedule.
“Some of it is on purpose — we went downstate one time — but some of it our conference (West PAC) is just about all Division 3 teams.
“We struggled early with making a lot of errors, a lot of ‘youth’ mistakes, but we’ve been playing really, really good going into districts and in the tournament.
“We’ve had some good pitching.”
That staff is led by junior Payton Manninen, a West PAC First Team honoree, and also includes sophomore Miley Phillips.
Manninen is also the team’s leading hitter, but has been aided by the return of Kadie Kaukola, who was just cleared to play again a few weeks ago after a serious injury suffered in 2022.
Sophomore Brynn Lanala at first base and the team’s only senior, Emily Morton, add depth on the hitting chart.
“For our defense, it was definitely the difference between night and day to be able to move Emily from first base to centerfield with Kadie’s return,” McGuire said.
The Hematites have played in the regionals the past two seasons and four of the last five years, which doesn’t count the COVID-19 year of 2020.
But they’ve only won one game in the regional tourney, something McGuire would love to change.
The upstart SC team put together a 13-6 season despite losing the chance to play around a dozen games to bad spring weather in April and early May.
But it will be the first time SC has reached the regionals in their coach’s nine years at the helm.
“We’ve been able to hit the ball really well,” Swajanen said of this year’s team. “We hit a lot hard line drives, even when they’re not finding the holes.
“It’s just a matter of cutting down the walks and cutting down the errors,” he said when asked what it will take to defeat Norway on Saturday.
The big difference this season for the Cougars is pitching, and that starts with sophomore lefthander Sammy Johnson.
“She pitched for us some as a freshman, then moved into our No. 2 role at the end of last season,” the coach said. “She’s starting to change speeds and really throwing strikes. I’d say she’s cut her (number of) walks in half from early in the year.”
Swajanen added that freshman Keira McDonald has moved into the No. 2 role.
“She’s starting to throw harder,” her coach said.
Defense has been a work in progress.
“We’re getting to know the basics now, where to throw the ball on any given play, for example,” Swajanen said.
“But we have good hitters throughout the lineup.”
He mentioned that players like Maddie Begovac and Alice Hancock can hit for both contact and power, while Josie Heminger and Stephanie Nordness also provide quality, not to mention Johnson.
“Sammy is a heckuva hitter, too, an excellent slapper (slap hitter) and drag bunter,” Swajanen said.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.