ESCANABA - Both the Gladstone Braves and Rapid River Rockets have been here before but this time new opponents await. The two Delta County teams are each making their second consecutive appearance here at Bailey Park for the MHSAA softball Final Four, set to begin Friday.
Gladstone (26-5-1) will face Springport (39-2-1) in the Division 3 semifinal at 11 a.m. on Diamond 3. In Division 4, Rapid River (35-5) plays Dansville (30-5) at 6 p.m. on Diamond 1.
Springport boasts one of the top pitchers in the state in sophomore Sam Bates. Bates leads the state in victories this season with 30, including a seven inning no-hitter in a 5-0 victory over Buchanan in the quarterfinal Tuesday. She has pitched 156 innings this season and compiled a sparkling 0.36 ERA.
Gladstone manager Gerry Smith didn't seem interested in hyping Bates more than her numbers already do.
"She only had seven strikeouts (against Buchanon) so she wasn't that dominating and Buchanon had a lot of errors as well," he said.
In addition to being an outstanding pitcher, Bates is also one of the leading hitters. She has belted 12 home runs this season, including a grand slam in her team's regional final against Grandville Calvin Christian. She has also racked up 42 RBIs.
In the game against GCC, Springport launched four homers, winning 10-2.
Smith was in a groove at practice Wednesday, staying the course and feeling good about his team.
"We aren't doing anything different than what we've always done," he said. "We're just taking some practice swings and working on our defense."
Asked about his pitching to no end, Smith said the information he gets on Springport will help make his decision on which of his dual aces (Christine Sharon and Alison Austin) to start Friday.
"Depending on what I find out, if they struggle with the fastball, we'll exploit that. If they struggle with the junk ball, we'll go with that. That has a lot of bearing," he said.
In the other half of the bracket Unionville-Sebewaing Area (40-4) plays Clinton (41-1) at 10:30.
USA defeated Rapid River in last year's Division 4 semifinal. Clinton eliminated Gladstone in the Division 3 semifinal.
Rapid River's opponent Dansville also has a sophomore pitcher in Megan Kelly. In Tuesday's 9-3 quarterfinal victory over Allen Park Inter-City Baptist, Kelly struck out six and walked none while allowing seven hits.
The Aggies won their third regional title in the last four years with a 5-2 victory over Fowler.
Junior Paige Galbreath factored big in both victories. Against Allen Park, she ripped a 2-RBI triple to spark a four-run first inning for the Aggies. She had three RBIs against Fowler.
"I heard their sophomore pitcher throws in the mid-50s. Heather (Sanderson) throws faster than that," said Rockets manager George Kanyuh.
Sanderson pitched a nine-strikeout, three-hitter against Bellaire in the quarterfinal and knows another performance like that might get her team to the finals.
"I just have to keep doing what I've been doing all along," she said at practice Wednesday.
Kanyuh said "At this point, what we've done is working for us. The biggest thing is carrying a positive attitude and getting the mental aspect right."
In the other half of the bracket Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (31-7) plays two-time defending champion Petersburg-Summerfield (33-3) at 6 p.m.
Kanyuh said if he had it his way, he'd want to face Petersburg=Summerfield for the title.
"If I could have my dream wish, I'd want to play Petersburg-Summerfield in the final. They've won it all the last two years and to be the best, you've got to beat the best. I know coach Robert Taylor well and that would be an ideal matchup, " he said. "I"m not predicting anything, but if I could wave a magic wand, that's what I'd want. We'll deal with whatever fate brings us though. If we get beat, the hope is that we get beat by a better team, and that we don't give it to them."