Top-ranked Macomb Dakota and No. 2 Utica Ford are on collision course to face each other for the Division 1 district title at Utica on Saturday.
Dakota faces Sterling Heights Stevenson in a district semifinal Saturday at 10 a.m. while Ford awaits the winner of Tuesday’s first-round game between Utica and Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.
Dakota is 28-2 and went 10-0 in the Macomb Area Conference Red Division with a pair of victories over Ford after finishing as the Division 1 state runner-up to Farmington Hills Mercy a year ago.
Senior Kendahl Dunford is having another stellar season on the mound for Dakota, with a 24-2 record and 0.87 ERA. First baseman Julia Salisbury (.576, 32 RBIs), outfielders Jackie Popko (.470, 26 RBIs), Olivia Patton (.460, 17 stolen bases) and Kattie Popko (.458, 30 RBIs), and shortstop Corbin Hison (.412, 20 RBIs) are also having strong seasons.
“We have a very difficult district,” Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. “I feel we have a good chance in the playoffs if we keep pitching well and playing good defense. There are a lot of good teams out there and everyone is gunning for us.”
One of those teams that will be gunning for Dakota is MAC Red rival Ford (27-8), which dropped a tough 3-1 decision to Dakota in the second meeting between the teams.
Ford coach Matt Joseph and his team wants to return to Michigan State after losing to Portage Central, 1-0, in a state semifinal in 2014.
“We have a good group of kids and having a fun year,” Joseph said. “We last won the district when this group of seniors were freshmen and we reached the Final Four. In fact, we started four freshmen in that state semifinal game and I feel that experience should help.
“Dakota is very good and they have (Kendahl) Dunford on the mound and she’s tough to score against. Defensively, we have to play a clean game and we have to put the ball in play. We had six hits in one game against her, had baserunners, so we had opportunities and we need to take advantage of them this time around. We have to play small ball and keep the pressure on them.”
Junior second baseman Gabby Palazzolo leads Ford with a .561 average from the leadoff spot and has 18 stolen bases. Senior shortstop Meagan Vervaecke (Saginaw Valley) is hitting .463 with 32 RBIs and catcher Gabby Dobroczynski is batting .433 with 30 RBIs.
“(Palazzolo) is having an unbelievable season offensively for us, hit over .500 in the MAC Red and has done a good job defensively at second,” Joseph said. “She’s a player from her freshman year, her improvement has been dramatic. She had hard hands as an infielder as a freshman and now she has some of the softest hands on the team and she’s really worked hard with her swing during the offseason.
“Meagan’s been a clutch hitter for us, has had six games where she has either tied it or hit a walk-off in the seventh inning.”
Ford’s pitching staff is made up of Emily Karas (15-4, 2.64 ERA) and Nikki Sorgi (11-3, 3.40). Sorgi pitched in the state semifinal game her freshman year.
“Emily is the left-hander and she has great movement, a great drop ball and when she pitches we get a ton of ground balls,” Joseph said. “Nikki, our right-hander, throws harder and she’ll get more strikeouts. She’s more of a power pitcher.”
Key softball dates
Districts: Tuesday, Friday-Saturday
Regionals: June 10
Quarterfinals: June 13
Semifinals: June 15-16, at MSU’s Secchia Stadium
Finals: June 17, at MSU’s Secchia Stadium
Division 1, Farmington Hills Mercy
Division 2, Richmond
Division 3, Monroe SMCC
Division 4, Unionville-Sebewaing