By DOUG DONNELLY
EAST LANSING – Whiteford came up just short in its bid for a state championship but did little to put a damper on a historic season Saturday.
The Bobcats lost 4-1 to three-time defending Division 4 state champion Unionville-Sebewaing at Michigan State University, falling behind 2-0 early and never recovering. They had the tying run at the plate, however, in the seventh inning when the game ended.
“Two best teams in the state, without a doubt, and I felt like we were putting the ball in play and hitting it hard,” Whiteford coach Matt VanBrandt said. “To make it this far, you have to be really good. It takes a lot of talent, and you just need a pinch of luck sometimes, too, and we just didn’t have it today.
“The girls fought hard all the way to the last out, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
The Bobcats out-hit USA nine to five, but USA made no errors and didn’t walk a batter.
“Unionville’s hitters were the most disciplined we have seen all season,” VanBrandt said. “They were very patient at the plate and rarely went fishing on pitches that were not strikes.
“Overall, we played well enough to win, but we just couldn’t get the timely hit.”
Patrina Marsh, Aly VanBrandt and Kaydence Sheldon each had two hits to lead Whiteford, while Unity Nelson fanned 11 USA hitters. It was an outstanding week for the Bobcats, who beat Kalamazoo Christian 13-0 in Tuesday’s quarterfinal and Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart 10-0 in Friday’s semifinal.
Whiteford finishes the season 40-4, one of the top 10 seasons in MHSAA history in terms of victories.
In the state finals, the Bobcats and USA were scoreless through the first three innings, despite both teams getting runners in scoring position inside the first three innings.
In the fourth, however, USA’s Jenna Gremel drew a walk and got to second on a passed ball. With two outs, Gremel got to third on a passed ball and Lauren Green got on base with a walk and score second. USA’s leadoff batter, Macy Reinhardt reached first base on an error in which both Gremel and Green came around to score for a 2-0 lead.
USA went up 4-0 in the top of the sixth, again with Gremel starting it all with a walk. The Bobcats made a play at the plate to cut down one runner, but a Reinhardt double scored two and the damage was done.
The Bobcats got a run back in the sixth when Marsh doubled to start the inning and Nelson singled her home. The Bobcats got a runner to second base, but she was stranded.
In the seventh, Anna VanBrandt singled to open the inning and Ambrelle Billau singled to left putting two runners on, but a fly out ended the game with two runners on.
VanBrandt praised USA’s pitcher, Lacy Harris.
“Harris hung around the plate all day and did not walk a batter,” he said. “She did a great job of knowing the umpire’s strike zone and pitching to it. Even though we had nine hits and hit several other softballs hard, her screwball and curveball were still very effective.”
Berlynn Keller is one of three Whiteford seniors. She said the bond the Bobcats had was unique.
“I can’t tell you how much I will miss this team and coaching staff, we truly are a family,” she said.
Nelson pitched in the quarterfinal and semifinal wins. She threw a five-inning no hitter against the Comets, striking out nine.
The Bobcat hitters settled down the second time through the order, rallying for 10 of its 13 runs with two outs.
In the semifinal, Nelson went all five innings, allowing two hits and striking out 11. She finished the season with 270 strikeouts.
Aly VanBrandt led off the game with a single and scored on an error to put the Bobcats up 1-0 early. Two batters later, Keller hit a shot over the outfield wall for a 2-0 Whiteford advantage.
The Bobcats poured it on in the second inning, adding seven runs.
For the game, Aly VanBrandt and Keller each had two hits while Billau, Nelson, Jessica Ulery, Karlie Conard, Shay Alexander and Anna VanBrandt had one hit each. Conard had a run-scoring double. Sacred Heart used three pitchers against the Bobcats.
Aly VanBrandt, who ended the season with multiple Bobcat single season records, said it was tough to lose.
“It’s hard not to focus on the last game of your season, especially when it didn’t end the way you wanted it to,” she said. “It’s tough to have a state championship at your fingertips and not be able to grasp it. However, it’s even harder not to smile when I think about the memories made this season and how much this team has accomplished. Team 44 was such a special and unique group of girls.”