East Lansing — Kattie Popko never hesitated as soon as she saw the ball appear to keep rising.
Standing on third base, Popko raced home as the pitch flew past the catcher and to the backstop.
Moments later, Popko slid under the tag Saturday in the eighth inning and delivered Macomb Dakota the Division 1 state championship, the winning run in a 4-3 victory over Grandville.
“As soon as I saw it go high, I knew I had to go,” said Popko, who began the extra-inning rally with a one-out single and scored three runs. “It’s an immediate trigger. I had to go for it.
“As soon as I saw it out of her (pitcher’s) hand, it looked as it was going high. It’s an immediate trigger when you’re on third (base).”
Dakota was able to string together three consecutive singles, then Grandville pitcher Ellie Muilenburg got a strike out, bringing up Arieanna Grammatico with the bases loaded and two out.
“I just wanted to hit it hard on the ground,” said Grammatico, who took two strikes, then saw the wild pitch go flying by.
It was the type of gritty rally that made Dakota (36-2) top-ranked and state champions.
“We’re famous for our (two-out) rallies,” said Popko, naming a big regular season win over Utica Ford and then district and state quarterfinal comeback wins. “We depend on each other and never give up and that’s something that helped us win today.”
Dakota senior Kattie Popko on the determination to get back and win the Division 1 championship. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Julia Salisbury had three hits and drove in three runs for Dakota.
Dakota coach Rick Fontaine had seen that never-give-up quality before from his team.
“We’re gritty and don’t give up and have a bunch of pit bulls that go out there and will not take failure,” Fontaine said. “It’s not an option.”
After losing in the state finals to Farmington Hills Mercy last year, Dakota was determined to reverse the outcome this spring.
“Instead of feeling let down after last year, my seniors took it upon themselves to get back,” Fontaine said. “We added five new starters this year and had to mix them in and that experience (last year) helped a bunch.”
Dakota coach Rick Fontaine on the state championship victory over Grandville. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Dakota pitcher Kendahl Dunford allowed six hits and three runs over eight innings, walking only one and striking out 11.
Dunford and Muilenburg (10 strikeouts, seven hits allowed over 7⅔) were dominant in the middle innings after the teams scored three runs each through three innings.
“All of a sudden both pitchers kind of settled in,” said Grandville coach Troy Ungrey, who felt his team was about to escape the bases loaded jam and look to a ninth inning. “I’m stunned. The game was back and forth and we knew, against this Dakota team, the No. 1 team in the state, we knew we’d have to play our game.
“We made a few little mistakes but nothing major. The girls played well. They were loose all week. I was very happy and proud.”
Traci Merriman had a two-run home run for Grandville (32-8).