Rockets fall in title game
BARK RIVER — The Norway Knights traversed the challenge of both the Bark River-Harris Broncos and Rapid River Rockets Friday afternoon in Bark River to become the 2021 MHSAA Division 4 District 99 champions.
The Knights first defeated the Broncos 11-5 then the Rockets 10-0.
“People don’t realize these aren’t that easy to come by,” said Knights coach Robert Bal. “I’m not going to lie, I was very nervous when I woke up this morning.”
Kali Stanchina pitched both games for Norway. In the title contest, she fanned eight Rockets at the plate allowing just three hits for zero runs.
Offensively, a four-run third inning propelled Norway to the lead and there was no looking back.
“I can’t say enough about (Kali Stanchina),” said Bal. “She pitched lights out both games. … I (told her) ‘Kali, if they both go seven innings, you’re pitching both games.”
“Like they say, ‘You dance with the one you brought.'”
Backing up Stanchina’s pitching was a solid defense who put on several displays of defensive prowess including a slick double play and a diving snag in center field by Donna VanHolla.
“Donna had the diving catching in centerfield and then that double play; a grounder to our pitcher and she turns and throws it too short … there’s not many double plays in high school softball because it’s just a short field,” said Bal. “To get it, that’s huge. That’s a momentum lifter for us and a momentum defeater for them.”
Pitching for the Rockets was Natalie Belanger, whose high school and future college career Bal held in high regard.
In her final high school softball game, Belanger struck out six Knights batters. She also made an impressive play — similar to one earlier in the season — to catch Taylor Adams on her way to score for the out.
The ball — off the bat of Hannah Burkland — was scooped up by Belanger who pump-faked to first then turned around to tag out Adams midway between third and home.
“Hats off to Natalie, too,” Bal said. “I talked to her after the game, and she said, ‘Some days it’s not your day.'”
“I said, ‘I’ll see you next year at Bay. I’ll come down and watch you.’ She’s a great kid. I think all the world of her.”
The tenth Knights run — in the fifth inning — sealed the victory for Norway via the mercy rule.
VanHolla hit a fly ball that dropped in play to usher Stanchina across the plate for the game-winning run.
The district title was one of two for the Knights Friday as the Norway baseball team — moments after the conclusion of the softball match-up — won their game against Bark River-Harris to take home a trophy as well.
For the Rockets, the season comes to a close.
“Norway’s making diving catches in centerfield, turning in double plays when we finally got a runner on … they were definitely the better team today,” said Rapid River coach George Kanyuh. “They deserve to win.
“We were optimistic coming in today that we’ve improved some, and I still think we have. But, the girls never got on track … The long and short of it was they played a better game.”
Notching hits for the Rockets were Belanger, Cecilia Pilon and McKenzi Schram.
While the scoreboard might not have reflected it, Kanyuh said the team had become better throughout the season.
“We did not show it today. But, I’m not lying when I say we are better than we were two months ago. But, I’m sure every team can say that,” he said. “It was an uphill battle all year long for us and I guess today we just didn’t get quite to the top of the hill like we thought we could.”
In the opening contest of the day, it was the Bark River-Harris Broncos on the losing end.
Like Rapid River, the Broncos also grew throughout the year said Bark River coach Rob Arndt.
“We started off the season and we were pretty green,” Arndt said. “We had a lot of learning to actually do, a lot of work where we just had to work on basics.
“By the end of the season, I think we had our basics kind of down where I was pretty comfortable with it. Today we just didn’t make any plays. I was happy with the way we hit the ball but we just didn’t make the plays we should have on defense.”
Just being able to play — as opposed to last year — was a victory in ways for the Arndt and the Broncos.
“It was great to get out there on the field,” he said. “I know the girls were all excited … Just to see the looks on the kids’ faces, to go out there get some victories, just get out there, play some ball and have some fun, it was nice.”