Macomb Dakota was supposed to be here, still playing softball during the final week of the season for the chance to lift the state championship trophy.
For Clarkston, the expectations weren’t as high.
Dakota has half of its starters back from last year’s team, which lost to Farmington Hills Mercy in the Division 1 state final, including standout pitcher Kendahl Dunford.
Meanwhile, Clarkston has five freshmen and eight sophomores, including several in the starting lineup — talented, sure but inexperienced.
Dakota has lived up to expectations. It hasn’t blown through the postseason like it did a year ago when Dunford tossed five consecutive shutouts, including a 6-0 gem in the quarterfinal win over Garden City.
But Dakota (33-2) still is playing well heading into Tuesday’s 4 p.m. quarterfinal rematch with Garden City at Wayne State, following the 2 p.m. quarterfinal between unranked Clarkston (32-9) and No. 4 Walled Lake Northern.
Dakota defeated Garden City, 18-3, on May 20 in a tournament in Ann Arbor.
The state semifinals for Division 1 are set for 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Michigan State. The state title game will be played at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“This is a totally different feeling than a year ago,” Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. “You knew coming into the season that we had everyone gunning for us every single game, so just the fact that we’ve battled the way we have all year, it’s just the pride that we get from that because it’s a lot more difficult the second time.”
Dakota had to battle back from a 4-2 deficit to defeat Utica Ford, 5-4, in the district final, after slipping past Sterling Heights Stevenson, 2-1.
On Saturday, top-ranked Dakota showed its potential to dominate with Dunford at her best in defeating Warren Cousino, 16-1 (four innings), in the regional semifinal before a 7-0 rout of New Baltimore Anchor Bay in the title game.
“Last year in the playoffs, we played seven games and we mercied the first five, then had a shutout in the quarterfinal, then when we got to the semifinals and finals it got a little tougher and maybe we weren’t quite as prepared for that final game,” said Fontaine, noting Dakota had outscored its opponents by a 53-1 margin in the postseason heading into the semifinals at Michigan State.
“This year, playing in those tough games throughout the year has got us ready and that’s important. Kendahl has been pitching well and when she keeps teams under one run, which she has, it makes it a lot easier on the offense, knowing they don’t have to score a whole bunch of runs to win.”
Dunford (Florida International) is 30-2 with a 0.89 ERA, striking out 191 while giving up 29 walks in 164 innings. Senior first baseman Julia Salisbury (.531, 40 RBIs) and outfielder Kattie Popko (.445, 42 RBIs) have enjoyed strong seasons, as has shortstop Corbin Hison.
“Corbin Hison has been our rock,” Fontaine said. “I feel she’s the best shortstop in the state and we’ve been preaching pitching and defense all year. We also pretty much lost half of our starters from last year.
“But what was really nice is all five girls that we replaced, and to me this is the biggest thing that’s really helped us get back, most of those girls that have filled those holes were all on the varsity last year and they learned and got to know what it’s like to play competitive softball.”
And juniors Olivia Patton and Jackie Popko — both outfielders — are among those first-year starters. Patton is hitting .509 from the No. 2 slot and Popko, Kattie’s younger sister, is hitting .488 with 30 RBIs.
Clarkston defeated Utica Eisenhower, 4-3, in the regional title game, with sophomore Olivia Warrington earning the win while also hitting a home run. Freshman Abbey Tolmie was 3-for-3, including a home run.
“We need to play great defense and have clutching hitting and pitching to make it to the Final Four,” said Clarkston coach Don Peters, noting Clarkston’s last state semifinal appearance came in 2003.
Central Michigan-bound Paige Blevins is hitting .500 with 14 home runs and 54 RBIs and Tommie is batting .473 with 30 RBIs. Hannah Cady is hitting .488 with 29 RBIs and also playing outstanding behind the plate working with Warrington, who is 23-5 and has struck out 195 batters.
New baseball champ in Division 1
With defending Division 1 state champion Warren De La Salle suffering a 5-4 regional semifinal loss to Sterling Heights Stevenson on Saturday, a new champion will be crowned Saturday at MSU.
Stevenson will be facing defending Division 3 state champion Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in a 1 p.m. quarterfinal Tuesday at Wayne State. The winner will advance to Thursday’s 11:30 a.m. semifinal at Michigan State against the quarterfinal winner between top-ranked Saline and Holt, who will play 4 p.m. Tuesday at Chelsea.
Liggett, which made the move to Division 1 to play with the top programs in the state, beat U-D Jesuit, 11-1, in a regional semifinal and Detroit Western, 6-3, in the regional final.
Rochester defeated six-time Catholic League champion Birmingham Brother Rice in the regional final to advance to Tuesday’s 4 p.m. quarterfinal against Northville at Wayne State.
De La Salle beat Saline in last year’s state championship game.