SPRING LAKE TWP. — Like a billowing storm, the Spring Lake softball program has been building for the past four seasons toward what appears to be a perfect intersection of talent, experience, team chemistry and work ethic.
With a roster that features seven players who have been varsity starters for at least three seasons, this particular core of players has helped the Lakers continuously break the school record for wins in a season the past three years.
That mark might be in serious jeopardy again this spring, with the Lakers off to a 14-0 start, as they run roughshod over the competition.
"We've got Lauren Hellman, Madelyn Nelson and Linsey Paggeot as three, four-year varsity starters with Lauren Somers, Kileah Rymal, Jenna (Core) and Leah Vaughan all being four, three-year varsity starters," stated 29-year Spring Lake head coach Bill Core. "This group has been together for awhile, and they've been committed to softball for a long, long time.
"Their parents had them playing softball at a young age and this is sort of the final act this spring. The only player that might play softball in college is Lauren Hellman. Madelyn Nelson is going to play golf, Lauren Somers is going to Michigan, Linsey Paggeot is going to the University of Wisconsin and Kileah Rymal is going to Saginaw Valley.
"So, for those five seniors, this is the final act for softball. They've been playing organized softball since they were 10 years old. We've had a taste of success over the last few years, but I feel like it has all been building toward this season."
Even after a 37-win season last spring that saw the Lakers advance to the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history, the lessons learned in a rare loss might prove to be more valuable than any mercy-rule win.
"We've learned some things along the way as individuals, players, coaches and as a collective team," added Core. "We are learning what it takes to win at those high levels. In order to keep improving, we are really pushing the intensity at practice to prepare for those kinds of situations.
"We are working on shoring up our defense and getting rid of the ball quicker, choking up on the bat and bunting more to cut down on strikeouts, especially against good pitchers. We struck out too many times in that quarterfinal game against (Stevensville) Lakeshore last season. We have to make teams like that play the ball."
With the team oftentimes enjoying sizable advantages on the scoreboard during games, the Lakers deploy a competitive practice atmosphere to help streamline individual and collective improvements.
"We aren't overlooking anybody, but we know that in order to take that next step, you have to practice every day like you are preparing to play in the quarterfinals," added Core. "Sometimes, it's difficult to duplicate those situations during the season, so we really work on that stuff during practice. Kolbey (Nelson), Sarah (Bulthuis) and I always talk about bunting at least a couple times a game just to make sure we are doing it.
"Those types of things will make a big difference in those one-run games in the postseason. We've been lucky enough to enjoy some big wins so far this season, but we have to prepare for what we are going to see when the games are tight. We have to get the bunt down properly, we have to cut down on the strikeouts, and we have to be athletic defensively. Those are some things that we learned we need to work on if we are going to win at those high levels."
Some teams might not meet advanced levels of critical coaching with open arms, but this year's Laker squad not only welcomes the critiques but enjoys the process of getting better.
"It's a fun team to be around because there's great chemistry amongst the players, they are committed to the game, they want to win and they are all good players," Core added. "They are all very coachable. I don't know if I've ever had a more focused group in my time here.
"They all want the big prize, too, so they listen when the coaches are harping on the little things. That is what we talked about during our first meeting inside. I told them, ‘You are all good players. You all can hit, you all can throw, but it's the little things that are going to make the difference.'"
At Wednesday's team practice, Core went over some minor things that could make a major difference in crunch time.
"It could be something as small as hitting the bag with your inside foot to cut down two steps as your rounding second base, so you can get to third base a half second sooner or tagging down at the ground instead of high, so you get their foot when they touch the base instead of getting them at the waist and their foot sliding past you. Those are the little things that are going to make a difference at some point.
"There's been a lot of years where we have had to focus on the big things. This year, we are really focusing on the little things and finding those small victories within the game that will help us come out on top.
"We've never had this much experience coming back, so it's unprecedented territory. With that, the coaches have some room to fine-tune and nitpick more than we ever have."
The Spring Lake softball community has grown alongside the team, building a supportive ecosystem that has helped the squad come together.
"Within the team and even with all the parents, it's a family atmosphere," said senior team co-captain Linsey Paggeot. "Everyone looks out for each other and there's a lot of support from everyone. We all get along and there's really no drama."
Even when adversity does make a rare appearance, the Lakers meet it head on and without reservation of ego.
"Everyone is comfortable with each other," said senior team co-captain Lauren Somers. "Sometimes, people get frustrated when other people don't make a play or make a mistake because they weren't focusing, but no one takes it personally.
"Even if we have to get after each other sometimes, it's only because we all want to win."
For both Paggeot and Somers, last year's deep run into the postseason only fueled a stronger fire in their final high school season.
"That run last year gave us all a lot of confidence that we can do it again," stated Paggeot. "We know what it takes to get there, and now we just want to get back there.
"We all wholeheartedly believe that we can do that again this year," added Somers.
REVERSE THE CURSE
Last year, that journey meant a dramatic win in the district tournament to spearhead the team's run through the regionals at Hope College, where the team broke through its three-year scoreless drought at Wolters Stadium.
"Wayland had been a thorn in our side, so to be able to beat Unity Christian and Wayland and advance out of Hope College last year was a big deal for us, mentally," said Core. "Stevensville Lakeshore was a bit of buzzsaw in the quarterfinals, but we learned so much from that game that it should help us a lot if we are fortunate enough to make it back there.
"We have to remember that it took a win in extras against Allendale to even make it out of districts, so nothing is a given. We realize that everyone in our district this year is a team we've played multiple times already this spring. We've played Fruitport twice, we'll end up playing Coopersville three times and we've played Allendale three times, too.
"Beating a quality team three or four times in one season isn't easy. Bringing that same level of intensity can be a challenge in those rematches and the other team could throw an entirely new gameplan at you just to try and make something happen. In moments like that where we have to be focused."
Unlike the oddball superstitions that can found among major league clubhouses, the Spring Lake softball squad doesn't have any bizarre habits before or after games, just a tradition that was started a long time ago on the basketball court.
"We don't have any superstitions like touching the University of Michigan banner or hitting the Notre Dame "Play like a Champion today" sign coming out of the locker room," said Core. "The only thing we do is, after we win, we bring it in and I say, ‘The man says winning is what?' and they all respond, ‘So sweet!' and we break the huddle on that. We do that in the locker room after basketball and softball games.
"That's something that coach Randy White started with the basketball team awhile ago, and we brought it to the softball team, too."
Core is also one of the few high school softball coaches that wears a traditional team uniform during games.
"There are not many coaches that continue to wear the uniform," he said. "To my knowledge, the only coaches in the state that still do it are Tommy Hudson at Thornapple Kellogg, Tom Vruggink at Hudsonville and myself. That's not really a superstition though. That's just a staple of what I've done for a long time. I grew up a baseball guy, and I'm just used to that."
SPRING LAKE SUPERLATIVES
Graduation is quickly approaching and that means many high school students will be voting for their class superlatives in the yearbook.
With a tight-knit group on the softball roster, I decided to ask a few Spring Lake softball superlatives to team captains Linsey Paggeot and Lauren Somers.
Team Comedian: Janna Ercole
"Janna is secretly really funny," said Somers. "She'll make little comments here and there that make everyone laugh"
Team Singer: Linsey Paggeot
Most Likely to be Late for Practice: Jenna Core
"She's always in the trainer's room getting taped, so that usually makes her late," added Paggeot.
Loudest: Lauren Somers
"Yeah, she's definitely the loudest," joked Paggeot.
Quietest: Alyssa Bowen
Team Mom: Kileah Rymal
Best Hitter: Madelyn Nelson
"You can always count on her to get on base," said Somers. "She's the most likely to get a game-winning hit when we need someone to make a play."
Best Fielder: Lauren Hellman
"Lauren makes diving plays a lot," said Paggeot. "She's always pretty clutch out in the field, so I would say her."
Most Gullible: Lauren Somers
"That's me, unfortunately," laughed Somers.
Best Friends: Linsey Paggeot and Madelyn Nelson
On the season, the Lakers have scored 159 runs, while only allowing 32. The team batting average is .397 with a .544 on-base percentage and a .579 slugging percentage.
Madelyn Nelson leads the team with a batting average of .604 with team-highs in hits (29), runs scored (30), stolen bases (nine) and triples (five). Jenna Core leads the team in home runs with six and is tied with teammate Leah Vaughan for second place in RBIs with 22. Molly Poole leads that category with 23 RBIs.
Linsey Paggeot and Lauren Hellman are tied for tops on the team in doubles (seven) and walks (seven).
From the pitching circle, Vaughan has recorded 71 strikeouts in just 51 innings. She has allowed 31 hits and 10 earned runs, while holding opposing batters to an average of .162 on her way to an 8-0 record as a starter and an ERA of 1.37.