JACKSON – Many softball teams across Michigan are trying to work off the rust this spring after an idle 2020 season but the Jackson Northwest program won’t be one of them.
The Mounties, who have nine varsity players who spend their summers on travel-league teams, have hit the basepaths in a full sprint and are off to an impressive 7-1 start to the season.
“I 100 percent think that’s a huge advantage for us,” said Northwest head coach Alicia Mobley of her team’s experience with travel-league teams. “Last year was quite the obstacle for everyone, but these girls probably played around 100 games of travel ball between the last time we played organized high school games to now, so I’m really impressed with how well some of these girls have evolved their skill sets with just one strong summer of travel ball.
“I think more high school coaches need to embrace summer ball programs because they do such a phenomenal job with preparing our athletes. The high school coaches that don’t get along with travel ball coaches are crazy to me because if you go to the state finals and you take a peek in those dugouts, you’re going to see a bunch of travel ball bags like Finesse (Fastpitch), Turnin2 (Softball) and all of those organizations are doing an outstanding job with preparing our athletes for their high school careers.”
According to Mobley, who also coaches at Turnin2 Softball out of Brighton, the fear of the dreaded “specialization” of sports drives some coaches against sending baseball or softball players to summer-league rosters.
“I embrace it because I coach travel ball, and I believe the more travel ball kids you have on your roster, the more prepared your team will be in the spring,” she said. “I don’t think athletes have to select only playing softball either. We are a bigger school, so a lot of girls at Northwest have the flexibility to choose to just play softball or not, but we also have one girl (Madison Neitzke) who played basketball this winter and several girls who played volleyball or ran cross country in the fall. A lot of our girls do play other sports, but I think playing in highly skilled travel ball systems is a great way to improve your game, especially with how last season went at the statewide high school level.”
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Thursday’s doubleheader against Interstate Eight Conference rival Parma Western was a perfect example of how Northwest plans to use sharpened skills and advanced awareness this season to gain an edge over their opposition.
In the opener, the Mounties recorded seven hits and drew eight walks to stay busy on the basepaths and run away with a 10-0 decision over their Interstate Eight Conference rivals from Parma Western. Offensive production came at a premium in the nightcap, however, as Northwest could only muster four hits against Western sophomore pitcher Hailey Whisman.
A few heads-up base-running plays combined with a clutch double from Campbell Kloack in the bottom of the third inning proved to be all the Mounties needed, as the squad leaned on the defensive prowess of a veteran roster and the steady pitching production of All-State candidate Nevaeh Ingram and sophomore Cora Pilaczynski from the circle to get the job down in a narrow 3-0 decision.
“Their pitcher, Haley Whisman, did a nice job in the second game,” said Mobley. “She’s going to be a good pitcher for them, and she threw a nice little screw (pitch) that our girls weren’t hitting very cleanly. “I thought our girls did a nice job of laying down bunts when they needed to and advancing runners that way. We showed that we can win with power in Game 1 and proved we could win with small ball in Game 2, so I was really happy with how we responded.”
Cora Pilaczynski recorded three hits, including a triple, with four runs scored and one RBI to power the Mounties from the plate, while Campbell Kloack added two hits and four RBI, Grace Pilaczynski had two hits, two runs scored and one RBI and Chloe Cooper added one hit and two RBI.
Nevaeh Ingram had one hit, two runs scored and one RBI, Maddison Rowley added one hit and one run scored and Katelyn Kennedy recorded one hit.
From the circle, Ingram combined to pitch 10 innings and allowed two hits, five walks and no runs while striking out 18 batters. Cora Pilaczynski pitched the final two innings of Game 2 and didn’t allow a hit while walking three.
“Vaeh has been a great leader for us,” said Mobley. “She gives the girls behind her a lot of confidence just by how well she plays and how steady she is when she’s pitching. I think her commitment to Grand Valley State University helped boost her confidence even more because that was something that she worked really hard for and to see results from that hard work just pushed her even more.
“We’ve got a stellar group of seven juniors, so we have a lot of depth and a lot of experience from that group. I’m excited to see how senior Madison Neitzke plays this spring. She played basketball for the past few months, so she’s still getting into the swing of things, but she’s going to come around and be a great asset to our team.
“This is just a very unselfish group. They are all talented individuals, but they are very selfless for each other and they have no problems making sacrifices for the betterment of the team. They’ve been playing together for a while, so I think the chemistry is good, there really hasn’t been a problem with personalities not meshing and I think this group has the potential to do special things this season.”
Those personal sacrifices are exemplified by some of the underclassmen on the roster.
“Sophomore Cora Pilaczynski is doing a great job at third base. She’s never played third before because she just pitches for her travel ball team or plays middle infield, so she’s really coming out of her comfort zone to play third base for us this year but she’s doing a good job.
“The more confident she gets; the better she’ll play on defense. It’s a tough position to play, especially when you don’t have a lot of live-action reps at the position. Tonight, she had a couple of plays coming in hot and she had to just trust her reflexes and make the play. That’s something she will just have to get used to over time but she’s already making strides.
“Our freshman, Campbell Kloak, has been coming in clutch hitting-wise for us and she’s batting in the three-hole in our lineup already. I started off the first game with her batting lead-off because I was that confident in her ability to get on base. She’s been a manager in our program for a few years, and now that she’s a freshman in high school, she’s fitting right in with the girls so I’m really looking forward to her potential.”
The Mounties won’t be ducking any opponents this season, as they take on any and all challengers in preparing for the district tournament in June.
“We love the pressure and that’s kind of our theme this year,” said Mobley. “We’re trying to get in as many pressure situations as possible before districts start so we can be playing our best in the postseason and make it the farthest we’ve ever gone before.
“This group has the potential to win a state championship. That’s what we are all playing for this year. We’re chasing and playing against teams that are ranked in the statewide polls and if you check out our schedule, you’ll see we aren’t taking any breaks, especially with our non-conference games because we want to get better every time we step out there. We’re calling people up to play and I’m sure some of them are thinking, ‘Who the heck is Jackson Northwest’ but we are coming. We haven’t represented out in this area for a while, so it’s our time to shine.”
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