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Tribune Top Five Female Athletes: No. 1 Madelyn Nelson

Josh VanDyke • Aug 3, 2018 at 12:30 AM

The Tribune is counting down our top five male and female athletes, as well as teams for the 2017-18 season. Our No. 1 female athlete this year is Spring Lake's Madelyn Nelson. The three-sport standout for the Lakers has earned All-State honors in softball and golf during her high school career and was also a lockdown defender on the basketball court.

With her team facing elimination in the Division 2 quarterfinals, Spring Lake senior Madelyn Nelson came up to the plate. The Lakers trailed by one run in the seventh inning with two outs already on the scoreboard.

Despite the pressure-packed moment, Nelson battled and battled, fouling off multiple pitches during an extended at-bat that saw 12 pitches. Then, Nelson delivered with a base hit, and calmly stole second and third base just a few moments later.

The Lakers couldn't complete the comeback that day, but that particular moment epitomizes the career that Nelson has had with the Lakers in three sports. Her natural athletic ability, combined with her steady demeanor and quiet leadership have helped the Spring Lake softball, girls golf and girls basketball teams enjoy a multitude of success in the last four years.

DYNASTY ON THE LINKS

As a four-year member of the Spring Lake girls golf team, Nelson enjoyed a historic run by the Lakers, which featured three straight Division 3 state championships in 2014-16, followed by a third-place finish in 2017.

As a junior, Nelson was named first team All-State after finishing eighth overall with a two-day score of 168. In her senior season, Nelson narrowly missed All-State qualification (top 10 individual scorers) with a 12th-place individual finish at the state meet with a score of 170.

"She's very intelligent and athletic," said former Spring Lake girls golf coach George Bitner. "She couldn't be a nicer person, either. She listens to feedback and has always been very coachable.

"I think one of her greatest attributes is that she gets along with everybody on the team, and she helps some of them with their swings. We had a couple of inexperienced golfers on the team this year, and she was a great leader. She went out and recruited kids before the start of the season, so we would have more kids in the program.

"She would even drive some kids home from practice."

The Lakers were determined to win their fourth straight title this past fall, but even though they didn't reach that historic milestone, Bitner believes Nelson was a driving force on all four teams.

"We talked about goals all four years she was on the team," he continued. "She always wanted to push herself to get better each season, and she accomplished that. She wanted that fourth straight championship as a team, so she was a little disappointed to not reach that goal. Regardless, she was a steady presence on all four of those teams. As a freshman, she was that important No. 4 or 5 golfer that really helped keep the team average low. As a sophomore, she was already right up there with Anna (Kramer) and Kayla (Krueger) as our third-best golfer.

"She really took off in her junior year. She formed a strong trio between Anna, her and Hannah (Klein). By the end of the year, she was hitting every shot with confidence and she ended up earning All-State at the state finals. That was probably one of my fondest memories of coaching her. She was so excited to reach that achievement, and she worked her tail off to earn it.

"Her senior year was when she really became a leader. She knew it was her final go-around, and she really wanted to make sure that the team was still aiming for championships. We won the conference for the 16th season in a row, regionals for the fourth straight year and finished in the top three at the state meet after being ranked seventh all season. I don't think any of that would have been possible without her talent and leadership."

Nelson will continue her golfing career at Valparaiso University this fall, joining former teammate Kayla Krueger on the squad. Bitner knows his two former golfers will continue to improve and bring home hardware.

"I think she's going to be a great golfer in college," added Bitner. "She's such a great natural athlete and has such a nice natural swing. If she keeps working on her game in college and devotes more training time to it, I think she's really going to take off.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see her and Kayla battling for individual honors at college meets before it's all said and done."

LOCKDOWN DEFENDER

During the winter season, Nelson used her athleticism and determination to become a lockdown defender for the Spring Lake girls basketball team. Nelson finished her senior season on the court averaging seven points, two rebounds, three assists and two steals per contest.

"As a coaching staff, we always feel comfortable putting Madelyn on the other team's best player, because she never backs down from a challenge and she's very determined," said Spring Lake girls basketball coach Cavin Mohrhardt after a Feb. 2 game against Grand Rapids Catholic Central. "She almost always holds her defensive assignment well below their average. That's not going to show up on her statsheet at the end of the game, but it's a pivotal part in winning basketball games."

The Lakers' fast-paced transition game works best after a defensive stop, and Nelson was often the one sparking the fastbreak with her defense.

"We like to get out and run in the open court," Mohrhardt added. "We are most successful when we get our bigs running toward the rim on a fast break, and a lot of times, it's Madelyn who gets that big defensive stop for us and gets the ball moving the other way.

"Madelyn is also a good shooter. We just have to get her to let it fly a little more often. She's a little too unselfish at times with the ball. There have been a few games where she hits her first couple of shots, and she ends up with a big night because she's more comfortable taking those attempts."

The biggest impact Nelson had on the basketball program this past winter was a changing of the culture in the locker room. The senior leadership instilled by Nelson and fellow senior Linsey Paggeot ushered in a new era for the Spring Lake girls basketball team.

"Madelyn and Linsey really took on the leadership role as soon as they realized they didn't have to be what past leaders were here," Mohrhardt said after a Jan. 31 practice. "They made it their own. I think part of our problem early on this season was that they didn't make it theirs. They were trying to duplicate last year and that wasn't working for them or the team.

"They communicate well and lead by example, in the good times and the bad. When they are having fun, everyone is having fun and things get done.

"If they leave a legacy of their attitude and passion, that is a pretty good legacy. Having had them for three years, I knew what they could do physically, so it was the leadership side I was hoping to see this year. They have fulfilled and lived up to that on and off the court, and did it in their own way. That is a good thing to leave behind."

MISS AUTOMATIC

In the spring, Nelson was a key cog in the lineup for a Spring Lake softball team that finished 40-1 and earned its second consecutive appearance in the Division 2 state quarterfinals.

Nelson finished the season with a .621 batting average, scoring 81 runs and stealing 36 bases. She finishes her career with four All-Conference, -District and -Regional awards each and a .547 career batting average.

She was named first team All-State as a senior, after earning honorable mention awards in 2015-16 as a freshman and sophomore at third base.

"She's always cool as a cucumber under pressure," said Spring Lake softball coach Bill Core. "Even though she's very even-keeled, I know there's a competitive fire within her that she doesn't always show. I think that competitive drive is what makes her such a special athlete.

"She's just a natural athlete, too. I had her in seventh grade as her P.E. teacher, and she was a great volleyball and soccer player back then. I'm guessing if she picked up a ping-pong paddle, she'd be pretty good at that, too."

Core views Nelson's junior year as a turning point in what may have fueled her stellar senior season.

"As a freshman and sophomore, she made honorable mention All-State at third base," Core continued. "Shortstop, pitcher and catcher are the most difficult positions to get All-State recognition at, and she moved to shortstop as a junior and didn't get any recognition for it. I think that really built up some motivation for her leading into her senior year."

That motivation pushed Nelson to astronomical heights in terms of batting average and on-base percentage in her final season with the Lakers, making her nearly an automatic base runner every time she stepped to the plate.

"Evie Lorimer was Miss Softball for us a few years ago, and she was in the .500 range, and we've had some special players over the years, but .621 is pretty incredible. She also had an on-base percentage in the .800 range, so she was as consistent as you could ask for as a coach."

With Nelson's aptitude at golf and softball, the two swings can sometimes become problematic. For her senior season, Nelson took it easy on the offseason golf swings and focused on advanced hitting techniques in the batting cage.

"It's hard to take your golf swing and turn it into a softball swing, and they can conflict," added Core. "She cut back on her golf as the season progressed, and I think that helped her softball swing stay a little more consistent.

"As a softball batter, she's just really talented. Opposite field hitting was a big stress the last few years for her and that's something that she's really worked on a lot during practice and with drills. She was the first one to really pick that up. Her ability to hit the whole field really helped her average this spring and made her a nightmare for a lot of opposing pitchers because she could put the ball wherever she wanted."

The only difficulty in coaching a special talent like Nelson is making sure she's engaged in the game mentality and taking on a leadership role as an upperclassman.

"My biggest challenge with Madelyn was finding ways to fine-tune her game without messing with what was working," Core added. "’If it ain't broke, don't fix it’ is basically the mentality I usually take. At the same time, I always wanted to push her on the little things, like base running techniques, special situations as an infielder and just keeping her motivated in that way.

"I also wanted to make sure I tried to push her as a leader of the team. She's not a ‘ra ra' type of leader; she leads by example. Some leaders are more vocal, but I think most of the seniors on our team this past season were a little more laid-back."

As her coach for four seasons, Core had plenty of memories from the softball diamond, but two in particular stick out in his mind.

"There's really two moments that stick out to me," he said. "That last at-bat she had in the quarterfinals is one because it really summed up her entire career. She just grinded out a tough at-bat in a big spot for her team, and she came through with a base hit.

"The other one was at the Traverse City Invite her sophomore year. We were playing Troy in the championship game, and Leah (Vaughan) and Lauren (Somers) had already pitched earlier that day and thrown shutouts, so Madelyn was pitching the final game.

"It was the seventh inning and the bases were loaded, so I visited the mound. I think she was expecting a pep talk, but I just smiled and said, ‘You know, we haven't allowed a run all day today. It'd be nice to keep that going. Good luck out there.' Madelyn just looked at me a little surprised, but I think that motivated her. She ended up striking out the side to end the game."

Unlike basketball or football, a player's impact on a team is marginalized in softball. Despite that, Nelson will go down as one of the best to ever grace the diamond at Spring Lake.

"Her legacy will always be that she was THAT good," said Core. "She only gets to bat once every nine chances, and she only gets three or four groundballs a game on defense, so she can't dominate a game like a running back in football or a pure scorer in basketball.

"Part of her legacy is going to be shared with her teammates as part of a special group that won 77 games in two seasons and won 40 consecutive games this past spring."

For someone who has been a consummate team player during her high school career, that's probably a welcomed celebration for the three-time All-State performer.

TRIBUNE TOP FEMALE ATHLETES

1. Madelyn Nelson

2. Alli Keyser 

3. Phoebe Saunders

4. Kathryn Ackerman 

5. Jenna Core

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