by Eva Dean Folkert
It was a long day of softball, but it was a joyous and successful day of softball too for Hope College on Saturday. After three games with 19 total runs and 38 total hits over almost five hours of game play, the Flying Dutch are MIAA Tournament champions for the first time since 2006.
And they did it from the back draw of the double-elimination tournament.
After losing their first game of the tournament to rival Calvin College, 3-1, on Friday, Hope needed four straight wins to claim the tournament crown. They got their first one by ousting Alma College from the tournament, 12-4, in six innings, also on Friday.
On Saturday, the Flying Dutch picked up right where they left off the day before, that is, with timely hitting, stellar pitching and focused fielding. By doing so, they defeated Calvin, 4-1, eliminating the Knights; gave host Saint Mary's College their first loss of the tournament, 6-2, and then topped the Belles again in the if-necessary game, 4-2.
With the tournament title, the Flying Dutch (29-9) have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Softball Championship which starts on Thursday, May 10. The NCAA will announce pairings and locations for the national championship on Monday, May 7 at 1:00 p.m.
"It's not often that you play three (games) in a day so to get the effort that we got when our backs were against the wall, when all three games were elimination games for us, I'm just so proud of our team's toughness and the way that they just kept believing and kept finding ways to get it done," said head coach Mary VandeHoef. "There were times when our offense had to bail out our defense and our pitching had to carry us for stretches too. And then there were times our defense made some really, really big plays that helped us a ton as well. So I felt really good about all three phases of our game as a whole and I'm just really, really proud of this group."
In the day's first game against Calvin, Hope was up against a team that had beaten them eight times out of their nine meetings since 2015. That includes the three games the Flying Dutch lost to the Knights this season which means this year's senior players had only beaten Calvin once in their careers.
But a rematch with their rival is what Hope wanted. And once again, like in the tournament opener, Hope and Calvin sent their top two pitchers to the mound. This time though, senior Sydney Jones of South Lyon, Michigan (South Lyon East HS) got the win over Calvin's Anna Gernant. Jones allowed only two hits, struck out 14 and walked four.
Calvin scored first with their only run in the top of the third. The Flying Dutch answered with two runs in the bottom of the fourth and the fifth. For the game, Hope had nine hits — with two hits each from junior first baseman Shay Pinhey of Ann Arbor, Michigan (Pioneer HS), senior catcher Hayley Reitsma of Grand Rapids, Michigan (GR Christian HS) , senior second baseman Sierra Mutschler of Wayland, Michigan (Wayland HS), and freshman third baseman Morgann Kanouse of Cadillac, Michigan (Cadillac HS). Freshman shortstop Savannah Dixon of Niles, Michigan (Edwardsburg HS) was responsible for two RBIs on a single in the fifth that scored Mutschler and Reitsma.
In the day's second game, the Flying Dutch finally faced the Belles in the tournament. During the regular season, Hope split their doubleheader with Saint Mary's, played at Wolters Stadium. In this game on Saint Mary's home turf, the Belles scored first in the bottom on the first and then added another in the bottom of the second. But that was all the scoring Saint Mary's could muster.
Hope pitcher Katie Singer of Howell, Michigan (Hartland HS) starred on both the mound and at the plate in this game. The senior (11-4) pitched seven innings, gave up two runs, five hits, and struck out six. Just as impressively, Singer secured her pitching win with offensive might when she blasted a homerun to centerfield in the top of the seventh, scoring three.
Freshman leftfielder Jo Cook of Birch Run, Michigan (Birch Run HS) had three hits, including two doubles, while Dixon gave Hope two RBIs on a double to left that scored Mutschler and Reitsma in the top of the third.
In the day's third game, Jones was back on the mound after only a couple hours rest. The Flying Dutch spotted their ace a three-run lead by scoring one and two runs in the first and second innings, respectively. Though it really would be all the Flying Dutch would need in the end, Reitsma added some insurance by hitting an RBI single to send sophomore Jordyn Diaz of Naperville, Illinois (Neuqua Valley HS) home in the bottom of the fifth.
As for Jones (16-4), she secured her second win in one day, this time by giving up only four hits, two runs, one walk and striking out eight. On Saturday, Jones threw 207 total pitches, and 142 of them were strikes.
"She's a competitor. Period, end of sentence," said VandeHoef of Jones. "She just wants the ball and she gets it done. She has a lot of belief in herself, but she also has a lot of belief in each of her teammates."
"It definitely takes a lot of mental toughness for an entire team to play three games in one day," Jones affirmed. "I just really focused on mixing it up and trusting my teammates and coaches a lot."
And how does she feel about her team's first MIAA tournament championship in 12 years?
"I'm over the moon right now because we've never done this before and this is such a special team with such a special senior class," Jones gushed. "I get to play more with an awesome team who has so much fight which is so cool. And now we'll keep going forward together."