by Eva Dean Folkert
The anomaly of an early March home game in Holland, Michigan — and a somewhat-warm one too (for March 7 anyway) — was embraced with a strong pitching arm in Game 1 and hot bats in Game 2 by the Hope College softball team on Saturday.
On a Wolters Stadium Field awash in spring sunshine, the Flying Dutch downed their non-league opponent, the Hanover College (Indiana) Panthers, twice, 2-1 and 13-5.
The experience of veteran leadership and the debut of freshman talent shone brightly to lift Hope to 2-1 on the season. The Panthers fell to 4-5.
The first game of the doubleheader was a pitcher's duel won by Hope in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the seventh. Hope's Shelby Steele of Eaton Rapids (Eaton Rapids HS), pictured left, had given up only three hits and one run. Hanover's Lily Beurman allowed five hits and two runs. And it was that second Hope run sent the Flying Dutch into celebration mode.
With junior centerfielder Jo Cook of Birch Run (Birch Run HS), pictured immediate right, on third base with one out and with third baseman Alex Benoit of Bourbonnais, Illinois (Bradley-Bourbonnais HS), pictured far right, up at the plate, Coach Mary VandeHoef took a calculated risk. The 10-year Hope coach signaled to the freshman for a squeeze bunt. Dutifully and exquisitely, Benoit tapped Beurman's next pitch — a change-up — down the third-base line with precision as Cook bolted for home, scoring the winning run.
In fact, it was Cook who scored both runs for Hope in Game 1.
"As the situation came up, I knew right away that's what we were going do. I just thought that would be the easiest thing for Bennie to execute and I trusted Jo, too. I felt that that gave us the best chance to win," said VandeHoef of her squeeze-bunt decision. "Alex had tried to base-hit bunt earlier in the game and was not successful. And I just think it's big that she knows that we believe in her to do that and it worked out."
Of Steele's stellar pitching effort in getting her first win, VandeHoef added: "To get a start like that out of a senior pitcher who has seen very, very limited innings in her first three years was just a big response to Thursday's disappointing game (when Hope lost to Manchester College on a walk-off single). We needed that big response. And we got it from Shelby Steele."
While hits and runs were hard to come by in the first game, the second contest was just the opposite. Each team had 12 hits in the 13-5 Hope win that went six innings.
The Flying Dutch opened Game 2 with six runs in the first inning, three of which were scored off the bat of another freshman, rightfielder Cayley Ebeling of Shelby Township (Utica HS), pictured below, who clubbed a double to clear the bases that were loaded by senior pinch runner Amanda Diaz, sophomore first baseman Kaelin Callow and junior pinch runner Alex Ebert.
Ebeling would added two more RBIs, and another double, after the first inning while scoring two runs herself. She accounted for more than half of Hope's runs while going 3-for-4 at the plate.
"We're really getting great production from two freshmen," VandeHoef said. "It's fun to see (Alex and Cayley) get going early and build some confidence. Cayley has come up with some timely hits in all three of our games so far."
The Flying Dutch's next action will be in Clermont, Florida, when they begin their spring break swing on Friday, March 13.
"We have a tough schedule in Florida," VandeHoef concluded. "We play a couple ranked teams and it's a grind on the spring trip to play 12 games in six days. But we feel good that we're heading into it pretty healthy.
"It's a fun week, though. It's that one week of our season when there isn't the balance of classes, and it's a great time for the team to come together and just play ball."