By Chip Mundy
Special to Second Half
NAPOLEON – Napoleon softball coach Doug Richardson heard about his current group of seniors when they were in middle school.
Yet, even with the promising words, Richardson tempered his expectations.
“Normally at Napoleon, when you have good athletes come through, for some reason the basketball bug bites them, and all of a sudden softball becomes second nature,' Richardson said. “When I heard we had a great group coming through around the seventh grade, I felt like, 'Well, basketball will bite them pretty soon.'
“All of the parents that I talked to said, 'Not these girls.' They played basketball, but for the most part, softball is their game. It really is a joy to coach them.”
The parents were right. Napoleon, ranked No. 4 in the latest Division 3 state poll, has eight seniors, and six played on varsity as freshmen. The team is 13-1 and coming off a second consecutive championship in the Saline Invitational – quite a feat considering Napoleon faced Division 1 competition in winning the event.
The Pirates have maintained excellence during the four-year run of this group.
As freshmen, they were part of a team that defeated Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central pitching phenom Meghan Beaubien 2-0 in the Regional Semifinals. Napoleon remains the only team to defeat Beaubien in the MHSAA tournament; the Kestrels have won the past two Division 3 titles.
As sophomores, the Pirates had a 28-game winning streak and were ranked No. 3 in the state before losing to Beaubien and the Kestrels 4-0 in the Quarterfinals.
As juniors, Napoleon ended Grass Lake's six-year run as champion of the Cascades Conference.
With a three-year record of 104-16 coming into this season, the Pirates and their senior-based squad are looking to end with a flourish. After its victory over East Jackson on Tuesday, Napoleon is 100 games above. 500 (117-17) with this senior class, and that number obviously is going to climb.
'Any 5-year-old could coach this team'
A team dad mentioned that recently, and Richardson shares the joke. While it was an obvious overstatement, the point remains clear.
“I just make out the lineup and sit back and watch,” Richardson said. “It's a senior-laden team, and if you ask what the lineup is going to be, they could tell you right now, depending on whether Rachel (Griffin) is catching or playing third.
“We have eight seniors who know each other and know the game well. They do what they want to do. I do give them signs, but for the most part, they do what they need to do.”
Richardson pitches batting practice, and that has become an event for the Pirates.
“Our motivation for practice is to hit Doug because the other coach will buy ice cream for the entire team,” four-year senior Paige Kortz said.
Richardson, either bravely or otherwise, welcomes the challenge and sees practice as a time when his coaching is needed as much or more than during a game.
“Still, somebody needs to push them at practice,” he said.
The Pirates have a swagger. They arrive a little later than other teams on the road, but they do it because they feel prepared enough to take a shorter warmup.
“I love the way teams look at us when we get off the bus,” said Griffin, another of the seniors. “They're like, 'They're not even here to warm up.' The other teams are hitting off tees and maybe wondering if we are even going to show up.”
It could be said that Napoleon is the last team to arrive for a tournament and the last to leave as it typically plays in the title game and wins.
“We get there about 45 minutes early,” Richardson said. “We're not trying to intimidate anyone.”
It's early in the season, but the Pirates are hitting .496 (201-for-405) and have outscored their opponents 168-25 over 14 games. Defensively, they have made 12 errors – fewer than one per game.
Kortz, who played center field the past three seasons but now starts at shortstop, leads the way with a hefty .692 average. She also leads the team with four home runs, 32 runs scored and 14 stolen bases.
“Our goals are high considering it's our senior year,” said Kortz, who broke the school record for hits in a season as a freshman and then set a new standard as a sophomore.
Griffin is a hard-hitting catcher with power. She is batting .600 and leads the team with 24 RBI. Last year, she tied the school record with 12 home runs and broke the single-season record for RBI with 62.
“We have a good time with each other, and we all love each other and we're close,” she said. “It just makes you sad that one day we're not going to be seeing each other after practice or taking grounders with each other.
“I have so much fun at the tournaments, and I know we all have some good laughs in the dugout. When we have fun, we seem to do better.”
Six others – all seniors – are hitting better than .450, led by first baseman Kaitlyn Weaver (.500 with two home runs and 20 RBI). Haley Rose, who moved from the outfield to third base this season, is hitting .489, while outfielder Dylan Wiley is at .480 with 22 RBI and nine stolen bases.
Kalie Pittman, who rotates between second base and the outfield, is hitting .467, while second baseman Ashton Jordon is at .457. Sydney Coe, the ace pitcher, is batting .452.
“We see each other every day in school,” Coe said. “We know when something is wrong, so then you can talk to them about it and help them through it, both on and off the field.”
Coe is having another stellar season. She is 10-0 with a 0.80 ERA. She has allowed 31 hits in 52 1/3 innings and has 60 strikeouts and 13 walks. Griffin has caught Coe all four seasons at Napoleon, and they have a solid bond.
“I give all respect to Sydney for pitching because pitching is so hard,” Griffin said. “She's the one pretty much doing it, and I'm just her feedback. She can control it; if she doesn't want to throw a pitch, she won't throw it.
“Against Brighton, she was just coming out of nowhere and had everyone on their heels. She was making people dance in the batter's box. They did not know what was coming, and she was hitting all her spots. She was doing really good.”
Richardson allows the battery to call the pitches.
“It's me and Rachel working together on it,” Coe said. “I just try to communicate with her as much as possible. Like if I have a pitch that isn't working as well one day, we'll throw it with nobody on base or when it's a low count.”
While there is plenty of season left, many of the current Pirates will play softball at the next level. Coe is headed for Lawrence Tech, while Griffin will be at Davenport University and Kortz will be at Ferris State in the fall. Wiley plans to attend Findlay, while Rose and Jordan will play at Jackson College.
A step up in competition
Last weekend, Napoleon went to the Saline Invitational and won the championship. It might seem like an upset, considering Napoleon is a Division 3 school competing against mostly Division 1 competition. However, it was Napoleon's second consecutive year as champion of the event.
The Pirates loved playing the role of “little ol' Napoleon.”
“I know there were teams there that thought, 'Oh, they're Division 3,' and they didn't know what to expect because they are used to high-class competition,” Griffin said.
Napoleon played Saline in the championship game and trailed 4-1 in the sixth inning.
“We were like, 'Wow, we're not used to this,'“ Griffin said. “We had games where we were mercying everyone before we went into that, and it was like our lineup just flipped a switch and everyone was hitting.”
Napoleon tied it in the sixth and won it in the seventh on a hit by Rose.
“It gave us a confidence boost,” Kortz said. “We compete very well in our league, but to see bigger schools like Salem and Saline (both honorable mentions in the Division 1 rankings) and coming back in the championship game gave us a boost and made us believe that we can do it in harder games. We can come together as a team when we need to.
“I knew some girls on another team saying that her coach said (that) game shouldn't be as close of a game because we come from a rural town and how their team travels to tournaments on charter buses and we travel to tournaments on school buses.”
The players realize that going against teams from larger-school divisions can only make them better players.
“We go to the Class A tournaments to practice what we are going to see in the District, Regional and states,” Coe said. “Winning does give us confidence, so when we go into the postseason we are more confident in knowing that we can beat schools no matter how good they are.”
Napoleon has a local rival as well. Last year, the Pirates ended Grass Lake's six-year hold on the Cascades Conference championship. However, Grass Lake – an honorable mention in Division 3 this week – defeated Napoleon in the District championship game, and the two teams are set to play next week.
“It was heartbreaking to lose to Grass Lake, especially because we competed with them in the conference,” Coe said. “They are a really good team, and it's hard to beat a good team three times. That's what they've always said.
“So, going into it, we were hopeful that we could come out with a win, but as heartbreaking as it is, we understood what it meant and that we had to work harder in the offseason to push ourselves to the next level and rise above the odds.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sydney Coe winds up during Wednesday's doubleheader at East Jackson. (Middle) Paige Kortz waits on a pitch Wednesday. (Below) Kortz, left and Rachel Griffin are two of a strong group of seniors leading the Pirates. (Photos by Chip Mundy.)