By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
GLADWIN — The outfield fence looked so far away, so unreachable whenever Gladwin senior Dayna Fennell stepped to the plate as a youngster.
And it was — back then.
"It was in high school the first time I hit one over," Fennell said. "When I was in Little League, I thought, 'I don't understand how people have the strength to hit one over.' When I hit my first home run, I was very surprised."
Nobody is surprised when Fennell clears the fences these days. In fact, it's almost disappointing for Gladwin players and fans when a game goes by and she doesn't hit a round-tripper.
With her 19th home run of the season last Saturday against Linden in a tournament at Ogemaw Heights, Fennell broke the MHSAA single-season record shared by Pentwater's Melinda Van Gillis (1979), Williamston's Camri Grace (2014) and Romeo's Madison Jones (2015).
The home run hit the top of the fence in left-center field and rolled over.
"I didn't even think it went over," Fennell said. "I just thought it would be a solid double. I thought it bounced inside the fence. Then I heard everyone cheering. I looked at the umpire while he was doing the whole circle motion; it was a home run. I was so ecstatic."
It was also an opportunity to exhale a bit. By hitting one home run in each of the three games of the Ogemaw Heights tournament, Fennell put the record pursuit behind her as Gladwin prepares for the Division 2 District on Saturday at Cadillac.
"It was actually a relief," Fennell said. "Everywhere I went, everyone's asking me how I was doing. It was a little bit of pressure. I'm glad I finally broke it."
The possibility of breaking the record became a hot topic in Gladwin when Fennell hit eight home runs in her first eight games. Before spring actually felt like spring, she eclipsed the school record of six that she set last year.
"I think I had 11 or so and thought there was no way I could hit eight more," she said. "Everyone was like, 'You've only got eight more.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I probably won't get it.' I never thought I was going to come close to it."
Fennell has tied or broken the school record in all four of her seasons with the Flying G's, equaling the modest former standard of three as a freshman and bumping it to four as a sophomore. With 32 career homers, she is tied for 10th on that MHSAA all-time list.
"My parents live 30 minutes away," Gladwin coach Jill Keefer said. "People are asking my dad about her. I'll be at the gas station, and people will say, 'I want to see her hit one out.' She's putting Gladwin on the map, in a sense, in softball."
Fennell has done a good job of handling the attention she's received for chasing and breaking the record, her coach said.
"She's very humble about it," Keefer said. "She just wants to play softball and wants to win. She's very passionate about the game. If she broke it, she broke it. Yes, she wanted to do it once she got that close to it. There was a little more hype the closer she got. People put pressure on her as she got close, even her teammates — 'C'mon, hit one today!' There were a few teams that didn't pitch to her, too; you had that factor. Now she's focused on winning Districts."
Fennell is a three-sport athlete, also playing volleyball and basketball for Gladwin. But no matter what sport was in season, she found a way to put in the work necessary to more than double her previous career home run total.
"Softball is my number one sport, my favorite sport always," Fennell said. "I had time to fit it in. I make time for it. Even if it's an hour, I go in and hit and do whatever I have to do. During the winter time, I was in the gym every weekend with my dad (Gladwin assistant coach Steven Fennell). I practiced hard when I went. I did extra reps."
Fennell is averaging one home run every 6.5 at bats. With 19 homers, 11 doubles and a triple among her 57 hits in 123 at bats, she has a whopping 1.032 slugging percentage. She has driven in 65 runs and is hitting .463. She has struck out only nine times, walking 16.
The fences on Gladwin's home field are 200 feet from home plate, but it's not as if Fennell is benefitting from a short porch. Nine of her home runs are at home and 10 have been on the road. She has come within inches of tacking on a few more home runs to her record total.
"We were at (Midland) Dow last Tuesday," Keefer said. "She hit the fence twice, and it was a 225-foot fence. If she'd been on our field, they would've been out. (Tuesday at Standish-Sterling) she hit the fence again, and it was a 214-foot fence."
Fennell is more than just a slugger. Playing primarily shortstop, she has a .900 fielding percentage. The versatile Fennell has also pitched and played catcher.
"She's a smart player," Keefer said. "She sees the field very well. She sees runners very well. She can pitch, she can catch, she can play anywhere in the field. I'd put her in the outfield, too. She has such a strong arm."
Fennell will continue her playing career at Delta College.
"They have a good dental assistant program that I'm looking into," she said. "A couple of my teammates from travel ball are going there. The coach seemed really interested and said I'd have a starting spot on the team."
Before she puts on a Delta uniform, she will try to win a District championship. The Flying G's are 29-9 heading into a District Semifinal matchup with Ogemaw Heights at noon Saturday at Cadillac. In the other semifinal, a Cadillac team that received honorable mention in the last coaches' rankings will face Gaylord at 10 a.m.
"That would be amazing to win, especially with Regionals being at home," Fennell said. "That would be awesome to have our whole crowd cheering us on."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gladwin's Dayna Fennell prepares to connect with a pitch during this season's Beaverton Invitational. (Middle) Fennell throws to first base against Ithaca. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)