By DOUG DONNELLY
BATTLE CREEK — Aly VanBrandt is the ultimate leadoff hitter.
The Whiteford junior has been in the top spot on the Bobcat softball lineup all season and has responded with a record-breaking campaign.
“Our season has been great,” VanBrandt said after the Bobcats beat Morenci and Vandercook Lake Saturday to advance to today’s quarterfinals. “It was really cool to win the district and regionals. We’ve worked really great to put the work in and see it pay off.”
VanBrandt and the Bobcats will play at 3 p.m. today in the Division 4 quarterfinal at Bailey Park in Battle Creek. The opponent, Bridgman, is 38-2, and coming off just their second regional title in school history Saturday when they beat Kalamazoo Christian.
The Bobcats are 34-2 and have won eight straight games, dating back to a 6-5 loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central. The Bobcats have played a stacked non-conference schedule of Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3 schools.
VanBrandt has been the catalyst at the plate all season. She already has set single season Whiteford records for hits (71), runs scored (66) and stolen bases (40). In Whiteford’s first at-bat of the game, VanBrandt has reached first base safely in 28 of the 36 games and come around to score a run 23 of those times.
She said she goes up to the plate not just thinking about getting a hit, but about seeing pitches for the first time.
“I try and think a lot about the types of pitches (the opposing pitcher) throws so that I can tell my teammates,” she said.
VanBrandt has been a master at moving from base-to-base, either by swiping the base or moving up on passed balls or on throws.
“I think base running is probably my favorite part of the game,” she said. “We have a lot of players on our team who are fast. It’s really fun being part of that.”
Whiteford faces a big task in battling the Bees, who are in the midst of the best season in school history. They are a power-hitting team with solid pitching. Bridgman has three batters hitting above .500 entering the game.
Kaylee Shuler leads the team with a .580 average. She is the team’s top hitter with 13 home runs and 87 RBis. She also scored 79 runs. Schuler is a junior shortstop.
Senior pitcher Natalee McNeil is batting .508 while leadoff hitter Arie Hackett (centerfield) is hitting .500 with five home runs. She’s also drawn 30 walks and has 61 RBIs.
Sophomore catcher Emme Slavens has added nine home runs.
In the circle, McNeil is 19-1 with 178 strikeouts in 105 innings pitched and a 1.20 ERA. Hannah Johnson (8-1) and Bella Gearhart (7-0). In their 38 wins, the Bees have 22 shutouts.
The Bees have three freshman, three sophomores, five juniors and one senior on its roster.
Head coach Elaine Starbuck is 64-6 in her two seasons at Bridgman. The Bees won the BCS White Conference this season, following up a BCS Red Conference title in 2019 when the team went 26-4 in Starbuck’s first season as head coach.
The Bobcats are playing past the regional round for the 15th time in school history.