EAST LANSING — After three innings on Thursday, the high-octane Hartland softball team’s offense was sputtering.
A lot of that was due to Howell pitcher Molly Carney, whose riseball was tying up Hartland hitters.
That changed in the fourth inning, starting with a leadoff walk by Madelin Skene, who has 14 homers this season.
“We changed our game plan a little bit,” Hartland coach Bob Greene said. “We’re a hard-hitting team. We like to hit the gaps, like to hit some home runs, but when you face a pitcher like Molly, you’re probably not going to have that opportunity. So we shortened our swings a little bit and played a litle small ball.”
it worked. The Eagles batted around in the fourth, scoring four runs en route to a 6-4 victory and a berth in Saturday’s Division 1 state championship game against Caledonia.
Caledonia beat Harper Woods Regina, 1-0, earlier in the day.
It’s the first finals appearance for the Eagles since 1996, when they won the Class A title under the late Jack Peters, who died last month.
Hartland pitcher Rachel Everett, a freshman, showed some nerves early. Howell’s Maddie Heilner led the game off with a single and, two batters later, scored on AJ Militello’s triple. Militello scored on a single by Avrey Wolverton to give the HIghlanders a 2-0 lead.
“She was nervous,” Hartland catcher Brooke Cowan said. “Once she got used to the crowd, and everyone screaming, she just dominated. Her warmuo was a little shaky, so I knew going into the first she would have to smooth things out, and she did.”
The Eagles led off the fourth with walks to Skene and Sam Nagel. Delaney Robeson then bunted, and Howell catcher Skye Grant was charged with an error while trying to throw her out.
Nagel and Robeson scored on a two-run single by Cowan, who was 3-for-3 on the day.
“I was just trying to hit it up the middle,” she said. “I was telling myself, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to get a hit.’ And then it was working out.”
Cassidy MacKinnon, Cowan’s courtesy runner, later scored on Bri Robeson’s single.
Howell came right back in the fifth when Sydney Pezzoni tripled and scored when Wolverton was thrown out at first base on a grounder to Hartland right fielder Kelsey Zampa.
The Eagles picked up two more runs in the sixth and withstood a Howell threat in the seventh to secure the victory.
Everett kept the Highlanders at bay, walking one and striking out five, but Carney was almost as good, walking three and striking out nine.
“They had a few clutch things,” she said. “Some things fell for them and not for us. We battled, and I thought it was a really good game.”
“That’s how the game is,” Militello said. “There’s lucky plays and plays that didn’t go our way, but that’s the game of softball. it’s a game of failure, but that’s the game we love and the game we play.”
The stands were full of supporters for both teams, and Greene expects more of the same on Saturday morning.
“You guys saw the stands here,” he said. “The faces I saw out here today, I haven’t seen these people in a long time. The love that is being poured into this team from the community is incredible.”
Should the Eagles win Saturday, there would be another championship ring in the Greene household. His daugter, Delaney, was on the Cleary University team that won the USCAA championship a month ago.
“She’ll be out here Saturday to cheer them on,” Greene said. “She did have words for the girls, and her words were: Enjoy every minute of it. Take a deep breath, look around and enjoy it. It’s really fun.”