The Spring Lake softball program knew four years prior to the 2018 spring season that there was a chance they could be assembling a special team.
With so many starters getting early playing time as freshmen and sophomores, it was only a matter of time until that core group became a legion of seasoned veterans. The prophecy came true in a big way, as the Lakers used that experience, loaded lineup and dominant pitching to win 40 straight games, including an undefeated regular season, and capture an O-K Blue Conference title, along with district and regional championships.
"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 after a practice May 4. "This group has been together for a while, 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."
All that forward momentum powered the Lakers to their 12th league title in 16 seasons, as they finished the conference season with a perfect 17-0 record. During the non-conference slate, the Lakers also claimed victories over local rivals Grand Haven and Fruitport.
The Lakers kicked off their district tournament run with a ballistic 15-0 mercy victory over Coopersville in three innings on May 29. A 13-run second inning powered the victory, while Vaughan threw a gem, giving up one hit with four strikeouts and one walk over her nine-out outing.
SEMIFINALS: Spring Lake 7, Fruitport 2
The Lakers held a 1-0 lead midway through the fifth inning before they were able to string together some big hits. Paggeot recorded a two-RBI double in the fifth to push the Lakers ahead 4-0, followed by a two-RBI double by Nelson in the sixth inning that moved the Lakers ahead 7-0.
Fruitport rallied in the top of the seventh inning when Rachel Paulsen recorded a two-RBI double to bring the Trojans within five, but the rally would ultimately get snuffed out by Vaughan and the Laker defense.
Hellman, Paggeot, Molly Poole and Rymal each had two hits for the Lakers, while Vaughan was the winning pitcher, going all seven innings and finishing with 10 strikeouts.
For Fruitport, Paulsen led the way at the plate with two RBIs, while senior pitcher Aurora Wilks went all seven innings.
FINALS: Spring Lake 7, Allendale 1
The Lakers scored two runs in the first inning, when Nelson batted in Hellman on an RBI single, followed by Nelson scoring on a squeeze play later that inning.
Core would add her 10th home run of the season to start the second inning to give the Lakers a 3-0 lead. Spring Lake would pull away in the fourth with three runs to extend their lead to 6-0.
In the sixth inning, Hellman tripled and Paggeot hit her home to put the Lakers up 7-0.
Allendale would add one run in the seventh, but it would be a short-lived rally, as the Lakers quickly put the game away and started their district championship celebration.
Hellman and Nelson each finished with three hits, while Core and Alicia Mumby each had two.
Vaughan picked up her second win of the day striking out nine in the championship game.
With the district championship, Spring Lake advanced to the Division 2 regional semifinals at Hope College, where they met their playoff rivals in the Wayland Union Wildcats.
SEMIFINALS: Spring Lake 2, Wayland 1
In a matchup that pitted the No. 2-ranked team in the state against the No. 6-ranked team in the state, it was the starting pitchers that stole the show.
After a scoreless struggle through three and a half innings, the Lakers broke through in the bottom of the fourth with RBI singles by Vaughan and Mumby.
Wayland wasted no time answering, with a solo home run by Lauren McCulligh in the top of the fifth, but Vaughan closed the door the rest of the way, finishing with nine strikeouts and only three hits allowed to pick up the win from the circle.
The win over the Wildcats felt like a large hurdle to clear for the Lakers, as every playoff run seems to have one or two close calls along the way.
"Leah Vaughan was phenomenal today," Core added after the game. "For her to keep a talented player like Abby Merice, who's been hitting .500 since she came out of the womb, off the bases today was just incredible. She went 1-2-3 in every inning except the sixth.
"In that inning, she gave up a home run and a single, but the next at-bat, she catches that bunt on a diving play and throws back to first for a double play. She regained her composure quickly and made a big play to help us get out of a jam.
"This is a big win for us. Last year, we had an extra-innings game against Allendale in the districts that really pushed us to the brink, and this game felt a lot like that. We have a talented team, but you have to have some luck along the way."
FINALS: Spring Lake 11, Holland Christian 0 (five innings)
In the championship game, the Lakers didn't need much luck, as they showcased just how talented their roster is, with nearly every player making a contribution from the plate or in the field.
Against a Holland Christian squad that celebrated its ninth win of the season with a regional semifinal win over Comstock Park (2-1) early in the day, Spring Lake was simply overpowering.
The Lakers finished with 15 hits as a team, led by Vaughan with four hits and four RBIs and Paggeot with three hits and four runs scored. Hellman and Somers each added two hits.
Vaughan picked up her second win of the day, throwing a two-hitter in four innings of work. Somers pitched a 1-2-3 fifth inning to close out the win.
The Lakers advanced to their second straight Division 2 quarterfinals appearance, where they would meet the underdog South Haven Rams, who knocked off top-ranked Stevensville Lakeshore in extra innings of another regional final in their bracket.
Spring Lake came out firing on all cylinders to start their quarterfinals contest, as Hellman started the game off by reaching on a single and advancing all the way to third base on a throwing error. Nelson would reach first base after a marathon at-bat before Paggeot scored Hellman from third on a sacrifice play that moved Nelson to third.
Vaughan would drive a pitch to the outfield to score Nelson on a sacrifice fly and give the Lakers an early 2-0 lead. Vaughan would make an early statement from the circle, as well, striking out the side in the bottom of the first to leave the Rams on their heels.
Core added to the momentum with a solo homer to kick off the top of the second inning, while another sac fly by Vaughan in the top of the third inning scored Nelson from third base, extending the Laker lead to 4-0 heading into the bottom half of the third.
The Rams would shift the momentum back to their dugout with a solo home run by senior third baseman Frances Lyons that beamed off the foul pole and got South Haven on the scoreboard. Coach Core and the Lakers decided to walk star slugger Hayley Kreiger after that, while Vaughan would mow down two straight batters to put the Rams back in a difficult spot.
However, a pair of walks shortly after that presented a problem, as Bocock took to the plate with two outs. After falling behind in the count, Bocock widened her stance and took a hefty swing at the pitch and sent it sailing over the centerfield fence. The South Haven crowd erupted as Bocock was swarmed by her teammates at home plate, giving the Rams a 5-4 lead and putting the Lakers in an unfamiliar position as they trailed midway through a contest.
In the top of the seventh inning and the Lakers scraping to even the score, it came down to two Spring Lake seniors. With Nelson sprinting to home plate in what would have been the tying run, Paggeot ripped a hard line drive to the South Haven first baseman. Instead of ricocheting away from the Rams' player, however, the ball bounced off the dirt and back into the waiting hands of their senior starter.
After bobbling the ball, she took two steps to the bag and recorded the final out of the inning, nullifying Nelson's run at home and turning the Lakers' championship dreams into what felt like a nightmare to those garnished in red and gray.
The Rams celebrated on the field after their 5-4 win over the No. 2-ranked Lakers, a mere three days after knocking off top-ranked Stevensville Lakeshore in the regional finals.
"We can't let one game, or one inning, really, define our season," Core said after the game. "They had all the answers today and sometimes it's just meant to be for someone else. They've beaten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the state to keep their season alive, so maybe they are a team of destiny.
"The adults and coaches will probably appreciate this run a little more right now, but I'm sure once the sting of this loss goes away, these girls are really going to appreciate what we've accomplished here. They've really put Spring Lake softball on the map. They've got nothing to be ashamed of, that's for sure. Seventy-seven wins in two seasons is pretty remarkable."
After the conclusion of the season, Nelson, Hellman and Paggeot were given All-State honors for their contributions to Spring Lake's historic 40-1 season, each adding to a long list of individual accolades.
Nelson received her 2018 All-State award for her time at shortstop after earning an honorable mention in 2015-16 as a freshman and sophomore at third base. She finished this season with a .613 batting average, scoring 81 runs and stealing 36 bases. She finishes her career with four All-Conference, -District and -Regional awards each and a .547 career batting average. Coach Core asserts that she "will go down as one of the greatest softball players in Spring Lake history."
Hellman picked up her second career All-State award in 2018 for her time in the outfield, after earning honorable mention honors in 2016 and full honors in 2017. Her .480 batting average allowed her to score 68 runs this season and rack up 26 RBIs. She also has earned All-Conference, -District and –Regional awards four years running. Her role on the team was described by Core as "the perfect lead-off hitter and center fielder."
Paggeot's 2018 All-State award for her time at second base was her second after earning full honors last season. A season batting average of .477 scored her 59 runs and a matching 59 RBIs, earning her All-Conference, -District and -Regional selections for the third straight season. Core attributes her success to her killer mentality, saying she is a "fierce competitor who has high expectations of herself and does not disappoint."
Rounding out the All-State awards for the Lakers was junior pitcher Leah Vaughan, who earned her second honorable mention nod for her dominant 2018 season. Vaughan finished 28-1 in 2018 with a 0.83 ERA, holding her opponents to a .150 batting average, while racking up 235 strikeouts in 169 innings pitched. At the plate, she hit .555, bringing home 70 RBIs. The effort earned her All-Conference, -District and –Regional awards for the third straight year.
"Leah had an absolutely incredible year," Core added. "She was dominating every time she took the field and we always felt like if we scored at least four runs, we were in really good shape to win that game because she was going to take care of the rest."
All five seniors on the team — Hellman, Somers, Nelson, Paggeot and Rymal — earned individual Academic All-State awards, as well.
Jenna Core earned All-Conference, -District and –Regional honors while setting the Spring Lake single-season home run record with 11 bombs and the career mark with 25, helping her to a .433 average to go with 48 RBIs.
Somers picked up All-Conference honors as a 12-0 pitcher and starting first baseman, while Poole received All-Conference honors for her .344 batting average and 44 RBIs, to round out the player awards.
By the end of the spring, the Lakers helped to continue their streaks of six straight conference titles and 78 straight conference wins — back-to-back regional championships, their highest-ever state ranking at No. 2 in Division 2 and a team Academic-All State award for their 3.72 GPA.
"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.
"It's been a special run with this group and we've accomplished a lot of amazing things along the way."
TRIBUNE TOP TEAM COUNTDOWN
1. Spring Lake Softball
2. Fruitport Volleyball
3. Spring Lake Girls Golf
4. Spring Lake Boys Swimming
5. Grand Haven Boys Cross Country