Making their mark

Wildcats join special company with regional championship win

News File Photo Members of the Alpena softball team from left, Abbie Funk, Sydney Chojnacki, Emily Vivian, Dayna LaBell, Mallory Kautz, Jade Schultz, Allie Funk and Emma Fraser celebrate after the Wildcats' 4-2 regional semifinal win over Lapeer on Saturday at Saginaw Valley State University. The Wildcats will play Caledonia in a Division 1 quarterfinal today at Central Michigan University.

Standing on third base, Allie DeRocher felt nervous.

It wasn’t hard to see why. The freshman knew exactly what was at stake.

She had been pinch running all day in high pressure situations, but as she stood 60 feet from home plate, she knew the next play was arguably the biggest one of the season for her team.

A few feet away, her coach reminded her what she needed to do: as soon as the ball was put in play, head for home and score. In that moment, she was the most important base runner of the season.

Moments later, Jade Schultz lined a ball to shortstop and DeRocher took off. Bay City Western’s shortstop fired home, trying to get the force out. As Western’s catcher attempted to make a play, she dropped the ball and DeRocher crossed home plate.

DeRocher screamed and jumped up and down, eventually jumping into the waiting arms of senior Emily Vivian.

Game over.

“As soon as (Schultz) hit it I took off and when I slid into home, I looked for the umpires call,” DeRocher said. “When he called safe I remember jumping up and down because we had just won. My teammates and I were all yelling and crying because we were so happy to win.”

DeRocher’s heads-up base running ended a wild, nine-inning affair in which the Alpena High softball team triumphed over Western 5-4 to win its first regional championship since 2008.

The game was the perfect example of what the playoffs are all about: two great teams duking it out, making big-time defensive plays, trading leads and players giving it their all.

With each out, the emotion and intensity increased. As the game went into an eighth inning and then a ninth inning, Alpena did all it could to keep up the good vibes in the dugout. However this ended up, one team was going home ecstatic and the other was going home heartbroken. Such is the nature of this time of year. The teams are good, the games are close and it usually comes down to a handful of plays that tip the scales.

That was certainly true in the seventh inning when Abbie Funk hit a two-out grounder to second base and Western attempted a soft toss from second to first and couldn’t pull it off, resulting in an error and the tying run crossing the plate, keeping Alpena’s season alive.

“It was extremely nerve-wracking to play and watch, but the dugout was alive and we were all cheering and supporting each other. No one ever gave up at any point which was super important and everyone was positive,” DeRocher said. The fight was intense, and there were key moments, like the home runs that were hit, that gave us a little extra enthusiasm which eventually led to our victory.

Alpena has shown plenty of potential for home runs, but who knew the long ball would play such a big factor on Saturday? There was Emma Fraser hitting a two-run shot to center field to help push the Wildcats past Lapeer. There was Fraser again, putting Alpena on the board in the third inning of the title game. There was Tara Myers sending the first pitch she saw out of the park in the fifth inning and there was Fraser following her with yet another solo shot.

“Honestly, I didn’t know I was going to hit a home run or even two or even three,” Fraser said. “I just went up there and I said, ‘I gotta do my job right now’ and I did.”

Doing your job. It’s a mantra that’s served Alpena’s program well for a long time and it rang true again Saturday. Whether it was Alpena’s outfield making dazzling catch after dazzling catch, Alpena’s offense coming up with timely hits, Schultz working in the circle or Alpena’s infield making key plays, everyone played a role in the win.

These kids, they’re 14 to 17 years old and this is about them and them getting here and winning it,” Alpena coach Paul Marwede said. “For the kids, you can see all the emotion and all the fun and the coaches, even though we’re much older, we have that same thing (emotion) inside.”

The emotion in Marwede’s voice and the tears in his eyes after the game spoke volumes. Since leading Alpena to a runner-up finish in 2008, Alpena’s longtime coach has tried so hard to return the Wildcats to this place.

 He’s come awfully close a few times. There was the 2-1 regional final loss to Swartz Creek in 2012 and an 8-0 defeat at the hands of Western in 2014’s regional final. Marwede might not say it out loud, but I’m sure those losses ate at him and his assistants a little bit; especially when you come so close; especially when your last two regional appearances ended with losses to Western.

This is not to compare previous teams to this one. This year is this year, last year is last year and each team is different. As Marwede pointed out, no current Alpena player was involved in those earlier losses, but the coaches definitely remember. The point is that Alpena’s victory serves as a reminder of just how darn hard it is to reach this point.  When you finally achieve that goal, it’s that much sweeter. That was evidenced as Marwede thrust a fist into the air and was high-fiving coaches and players at the end of the game.

It’s a milestone that only five previous Alpena teams had achieved before Saturday.

Now this year’s team is one of eight teams left standing in Division 1 and has carved out its own unique chapter in program history.

“It is amazing to be one of eight teams playing Division 1 softball. Everyone has worked so hard to get to where we are today, players as well as coaches,” DeRocher said. “This is an accomplishment that you remember for the rest of your life, and to be a part of such a great team is an honor.”

But the season isn’t over yet and the Wildcats have a chance to put an even bigger bow on the season. The only thing standing in the way of a trip to East Lansing is a matchup with seventh-ranked Caledonia.

Alpena will play the Fighting Scots in a quarterfinal at 4 p.m. today at Central Michigan University’s Margo Jonker Stadium.

It’s a safe bet the Fighting Scots won’t go down easy. Caledonia has won two games by shutout this postseason and won a pair of close games in their regional, taking both games by scores of 4-1.

Caledonia has an outstanding two-way player in senior Sammie Gehrls. At the plate, Gehrls batted around .500 in the regular season with 10 home runs and 41 RBI. In the circle as Caledonia’s ace, Gehrls went 14-1 with 151 strikeouts in 101 innings. She will play basketball and softball at Grand Valley State University.

The Fighting Scots are chasing a goal of their own too. Three years ago Caledonia advanced all the way to the Division 1 title game and lost, so the Fighting Scots are aiming to make a return appearance.

It remains to be seen how the Wildcats will fare today, but after the last two weeks the Wildcats are battle-tested, determined and ready to fight.

If this past weekend is any indication, the Wildcats have a few tricks up their sleeve still and aren’t done clawing just yet.

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.