Ever since the Lakers fell to Stevensville Lakeshore (6-1) in last year's state quarterfinals, the talking points among the team have centered on getting back to the Elite Eight of the Division 2 field. This time, the team hopes to not just enjoy the moment but to make it their own and keep their dream season alive.
"I think getting a taste last year was important," said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core. "We are returning eight girls from that experience and now they know what to expect. Getting back to the quarterfinals was on our minds all offseason, and we have put in a lot of work to get back here. If you look at the bracket, there aren't a lot of repeat teams from last year. It's difficult to get back here, so we aren't taking this for granted. We know we have a rare opportunity.
"The biggest thing we learned from last year was that you have to cut down on strikeouts and put the ball in play at this level of competition. We have worked a lot on that with bunting and small ball. We have to make the defense work. That's the biggest thing for us. Chances are, if a team has made it this far, they probably have a strong ace pitcher. You can't let one player dominate the game. You have to take swings, make contact and put pressure on them."
While many were expecting the No. 2-ranked Lakers to face top-ranked Stevensville Lakeshore in today's 5 p.m. quarterfinal matchup at Hope College, that potential showdown never materialized, as South Haven pulled off a monumental upset in extra innings Saturday in the regional finals.
With the Rams and Lancers tied at two in the top of the eighth inning, South Haven freshman Jordyn Holland smashed a two-run home run over the left field fence to give the Rams a 4-2 lead. Lakeshore could only manage a single run in the bottom of the inning, closing out the upset and sending the Rams to the quarterfinals. The win also brought 29-year head coach Wilma Wilson her first regional championship.
Starting pitcher Hayley Kreiger scattered 12 hits over eight innings, as the Lancers left 15 runners on base, including nine in scoring position.
"Kreiger is a great athlete for them," added Core. "She's going to Davenport University to play softball and volleyball, and she's got the ability to impose her will on a game. She's their best player and we are aware of that. She's probably their best hitter, as well, so keeping her off the basepaths is important.
"If we can slow her down at the plate, and make consistent contact against her when we are up, we should put ourselves in a good position."
South Haven thrashed Olivet in their semifinal matchup, scoring an 18-5 win in six innings. The Rams recorded 18 hits, including three-hit games for Kreiger and Haley Mines. Kreiger finished with five RBIs in the game, including a two-run home run.
The Lakers survived a scare from No. 6 Wayland in their regional semifinal showdown, escaping with a 2-1 win thanks to RBIs by junior Leah Vaughan and freshman Alicia Mumby in the fourth inning. Vaughan mowed down the Wildcat lineup for nine strikeouts in the contest, keeping star sluggers Abby Merice and Sydney Urben off the basepaths.
In the regional final, the Lakers overpowered Holland Christian 11-0 in five innings of play. Vaughan threw a two-hitter from the circle, while senior Lauren Somers closed out the final three outs of the game in relief.
As a team, the Lakers finished with 15 hits, led by Vaughan with four hits and four RBIs and senior Linsey Paggeot with three hits and four runs scored. Seniors Lauren Hellman and Somers each added two hits.
With the team just one win away from the program's first state semifinals appearance in program history, Core believes his team has the right mindset to get the job done.
"We are really taking on a business-trip mentality to this game," he stated. "Last year, we were excited to be there, and I think we didn't know if we could win the game or not. This time around, the girls are still excited to be one of the final eight teams left in the tournament, but we want to win.
"Making it to the Final Four would be a special accomplishment for this group. It would be something rewarding for all our players, parents, fans and the entire community to be a part of. A lot of work and time commitment has been put into this team by everyone involved. I think making a historic run through the postseason would be added bonus to an already special season for Spring Lake softball."
SCOUTING REPORT: SOUTH HAVEN RAMS
Head Coach: Wilma Wilson
Key Players: Hayley Kreiger, Haley Mines and Jordyn Holland
ROAD TO THE QUARTERFINALS
Defeated Otsego (2-0)
Defeated Paw Paw (5-1)
Defeated Olivet (18-5)
Defeated Stevensville Lakeshore (4-3)