ONSTED – Becca Daoust just wanted to make a play.
The senior infielder for the Napoleon softball team hadn’t experienced playoff action in more than two years when her squad was upended in the district semifinals during the 2019 state tournament.
This time around, the Pirates held a narrow 5-3 advantage in the bottom of the sixth inning over their Cascades Conference rivals from Grass Lake during the Division 3 district semifinals at Onsted High School on Saturday.
That’s when Daoust took it upon herself to make a game-changing play as she smashed a pitch into the gap and raced around the bases before the Warrior defense could manufacture a cut-off throw to home plate, scoring an inside-the-park home run to extend her team’s lead to 6-3.
Napoleon would tack on an additional run shortly after that play to secure a 7-3 victory over Grass Lake and advance to the district championship game. A few hours later, the Pirates dispatched Hudson 11-1 in five innings to secure their 10 district championship in 20 seasons and advance to next week’s regional at Michigan Center High School.
“I knew it was a close game, so I was just telling myself before that at-bat that I need to score,” said Daoust. “I needed to be a leader right now and make a play for my team, so I just connected on a pitch and I just started booking it around the bases. As soon as I saw the cut-off go past the backstop, I knew I was going home and I just raced around third (base) and went home.”
The pivotal moment in a hard-fought battle epitomized what’s been a season filled with dramatic wins for the Pirates that has resulted in a 27-8 overall record.
“That play really summed up our season,” said Napoleon head coach Doug Richardson. “We were playing good team defense, stringing some hits together and hanging on to a lead and then one of our leaders came through for us when we needed it. (Becca) connected on a good pitch and then showed off some good base running to make a big play for us. I think we really needed that because Grass Lake was building some momentum, but that play really sparked us and helped us close it out.”
Karson Fairbanks led the Pirate attack against Grass Lake with four hits and two RBI, while Daoust added three hits, Elisse Omey had two hits and Hannah Negus added two RBI. Raye Burke picked up the win from the circle, striking out five batters over seven innings with a WHIP of 1.00.
In the district finals against Hudson, Omey added three hits and four RBI, while Daoust added three hits and three RBI and Burke added two hits. Burke also added her second win of the day from the circle, recording four strikeouts over five innings with a WHIP of 0.80.
“I thought we fielded well, and we came up with some timely hits, especially against a quality Grass Lake team in the semifinals,” said Richardson. “Raye Burke pitched really well today. She really stepped up for us in some big moments. She’s pitched every other game throughout the regular season, so this is the first time she’s pitched back-to-back games for us all year. I thought she was solid in both outings and she gave us a chance to win with how well she performed from the circle.
“I thought Elisse Omey played really well at third base and Karson Fairbanks had a heck of a game against Grass Lake. She was 4-for-4 from the plate and hit one to the fence that scored a couple of runs for us in the fifth inning to make it 5-1.
“My shortstop, sophomore Alyssa Budd, makes catches that you just don’t see from shortstops anymore, Hannah Negus always does such a great job in left field, and Daoust is always a catalyst for us. When she is hitting well, our team really goes. We really all came together to make pivotal plays when we needed them today. It makes the celebration afterward a little more fun when everyone feels involved and helped contribute to a district title like this.”
The Napoleon squad that took the field Saturday at Onsted might not look familiar to anyone who watched the team drop a doubleheader to Grass Lake by scores of 11-7 and 11-6 on May 10. A week later, the Napoleon lineup finally clicked in a 9-5 comeback win over Manchester in a game that proved to be a seminal moment in their season.
“We came back from being down 5-4 in the last inning of that game and erupted for five runs in the final frame to get the win,” said Richardson. “I think that was the moment where we gained a lot of confidence and the girls started to realize just how good we can be as a team when we put it all together.
“Our mentality, our mannerisms, our demeanor, all of that changed from that point on and we just became a completely different team.”
For Daoust, who is signed to continue to her college career at the University of Toledo, the chance to even compete for a district championship was a reward of its own after having her junior season taken away from her and entering her final high school season with sizable uncertainty.
“I wasn’t sure how this season was going to go, especially with COVID protocols, but it feels really special to win it as a senior,” she said. “We won a district my freshman year and now, I get a chance to win another one as a senior. After losing an entire season last spring, it really makes me appreciate it a lot more too.”
For Grass Lake, the district semifinal loss was a sour ending to a sweet season, as the Warriors collected 33 wins and a Cascades Conference championship with a roster of mostly underclassmen.
“I just told the girls how proud I am of them and how proud they should be of themselves for putting together such an incredible season,” said Grass Lake head coach Roger Cook. “We’ve only got one senior on our roster, Makayla Miller, and we are playing out there with pretty much all freshmen and sophomores and ended up with 33 wins and an undefeated conference season at 14-0.
“Today, we battled hard, but Napoleon is just very good. They were the better team today. They had a little more postseason experience than us, and I think that’s part of the reason why they got off to a faster start than we did.
“I think we were a little shell-shocked with how big the situation was at first and it took us a few innings to get into a rhythm, especially from the plate. We are normally a much stronger hitting team than that, but give Napoleon’s pitcher credit, she pitched a great game and the defense behind made a lot of big plays for them too. In the postseason, especially against someone you’ve played twice already, it comes down to a couple of plays. Today, they made a few more plays than us.”
Sophomore Laney Brown led Grass Lake against Napoleon on Saturday, as she recorded two RBI from the plate and pitched seven innings with five strikeouts from the circle.
The secret sauce for the Warriors softball program this season was an extra helping of togetherness and that should bode well for the future success of Grass Lake softball in 2022.
“We’ve got great camaraderie, great leadership, great parents, and great assistant coaches,” said Cook. “It all just kind of came together this year and it was a really fun ride. We won the conference, won three tournaments during the regular season but just not the one tournament at the end of the year that counts the most.
“This will be a great learning experience for all of these girls. We really didn’t know what to expect this year because the majority of our roster had no varsity experience. I think this group will come back even stronger next season and I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone progresses over the offseason.”
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