By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Capturing the program’s first district championship since 2011 and the fourth in school history, Oxford Wildcat softball won two one-run games on June 5, walking off the Holly Bronchos, 3-2, in the semifinals and blanking the Davison Cardinals, 1-0, in the title game.
In the Holly tilt, the Wildcats trailed, 2-1, entering the bottom of the seventh inning. Down to their final three outs, junior left fielder Kiersten Ihrke singled to begin the frame and was replaced by a pinch-runner, senior Makenzie Brown.
After senior center fielder Emma Morris advanced her to second base with a sacrifice bunt, Brown came around to score the game-tying run on a single by second baseman Alexis Cardona, another senior.
The Bronchos then elected to walk the next two Oxford hitters, seniors Meghan Lupu and Alexis Stoll, setting up a force at home plate. With senior first baseman Caroline Marsh in the batter’s box, head coach Kenny Allen made the decision to go for the game right there, calling for a suicide squeeze bunt.
This decision worked perfectly, as Marsh laid the bunt down, scoring Cardona and sending the Wildcats to the district championship game.
“When I got the suicide squeeze sign, I got really excited because that’s my favorite play ever in softball history,” Marsh said.
“I knew I needed to get the bunt down in fair territory and when I got it down, I’ve never ran so fast in my life to first, and I looked over at the parents to my right to see if the run scored and counted, and I saw the parents jumping and screaming. I was so happy.”
It was fitting Cardona, a varsity player since her freshman year who ranks second on the team in batting average (.423) and hits (61), scored the game-winning run, as the Davenport Panthers signee has been the team’s catalyst in the leadoff spot for the duration of the season.
Oxford has been a strong hitting team since their April 6 season-opener and this all starts at the top of the order with Cardona, a role she has embraced.
“Our team is a really strong hitting team and I feel like if I start off hitting, hitting’s contagious and everyone else typically does well, so I try to get on-base my first at-bat every game,” Cardona shared.
Having clinched the first district title for the first time in a decade, the Wildcats will head to Bay City Central on Saturday in search of the first regional championship in school history.
Their quest will begin with a date with the Flint Metro League’s Fenton Tigers at 10 a.m. in a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Regional No. 1 Semifinal.
Cardona, Lupu, Marsh, and Morris are Allen’s four team captains and part of the team’s seven-member senior class. After their junior season, 2020, was canceled by the coronavirus, these leaders shared what has helped the team hit the ground running from the jump this year.
“We’ve never really had such a strong hitting team,” Marsh said. “From the beginning, from the get-go, I feel like we started realizing we could really have a good offense.”
“Not only that, but, as a team, we all get along,” Cardona added. “We work really well together, and it helps us win a lot of games.”
Lupu pointed to the same factors as Cardona.
“Our bond and our friendship really help us,” she began. “We’re a hard-working team.”
Called the best defensive center fielder he has had in his eight-year tenure by Allen, Morris missed the team’s first 13 games while rehabbing a broken left wrist suffered during a March 3 basketball victory over the Lake Orion Dragons.
Since her April 23 debut against the Chippewa Valley Big Reds, the two-sport star has infused herself in the lineup seamlessly, hitting .337 (28-for-83) with 15 extra-base hits, including a team-high five home runs.
Morris shared what she focused on during the rehabilitation process to jump into midseason action swinging.
“When I was injured, I was trying to focus on things I could do,” she shared. “Obviously, I couldn’t catch anything, so I was working on staying in shape, doing what I could so when I was coming back, I didn’t have as much to work on, and I could jump right into it.
“A lot of hard work and focus because this is my senior year, this is it.”
Morris, like Cardona, will be continuing her career at the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II level, having signed with the Painesville, Ohio-based Lake Erie Storm of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (G-MAC).
Lupu will also be playing softball collegiately with the Adrian Bulldogs in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA), an NCAA Division III program.
The team’s shortstop, Lupu also was a standout libero for Brian Kim’s volleyball program and likely could have played that sport in college if she desired. It was her love of the game and the fun she has with her teammates that drove her to focus on softball, however, the realization of a longtime goal.
Though he did not have that year to watch his juniors and seniors develop as sophomores and juniors in 2020, Allen felt good about his team’s prospects entering this season.
“Anytime you have seven seniors, that gives you a little bit of a step up, especially when they’re all good players,” he said. “That right there got me a little excited, and then, the first game of the year, we just came out and we were hitting and scoring at a clip I’ve never experienced.
“They are very, very good at hitting, but they’re also very good defensively and our pitchers are pitching to contact and they’re making the plays behind them. It’s pretty special.”
Their offensive firepower has carried the Wildcats this season, as the team as scored 379 runs, good for an average of 9.7 per game, but it was the pitching that came up big in districts.
Junior Abby Witt threw a complete game against Holly, finding the strike zone with 65 of her 87 pitchers, allowing seven hits, walking a pair, and fanning four. Annah Burdua, another junior, was just as sharp in the Davison game, working all seven innings, surrendering five hits, walking three, and striking out two.
Allen shared what stood out to him most about the performances from these two.
“That fact that Burdua, in a championship game, of my three main pitchers, she has the fewest innings this season,” he began. “She just came out and had ice water in her veins. We have this pitching rotation strategy and we’re going back and forth, ‘Are we close, do we need to flip the order?’
“But she just stayed right in there, kept her nerves under control. She changes speeds a lot and it’s a huge help and her ball has a lot of natural movement, it’s not going to overpower anyone like Montana Fouts from Alabama, but if you can change speeds and locate, you can be highly effective at every level of softball.”
As for Saturday’s action, Oxford is the advantageous position of having played Fenton previously in 2021, splitting a home doubleheader with the Tigers on May 19, winning the first game, 8-4, and dropping the second, 4-3.
Of course, this advantage works both ways, as Fenton also has some level of familiarity with the Wildcats.
While playing a foe you have seen is nice, Allen is stressing just playing the game rather than worrying about the opponent.
“We talked all week (last week), we’re not playing Holly, we’re playing against the game of softball,” he said. “Which means, you got to field, you got to hit, you got to throw, you got to pitch strikes.
“So, our message with Fenton is, yes, we’ve already played them, we split, but we’re playing against the game of softball. They understand what that means, they got to witness that in the game, and it was pretty cool to see because routine plays need to be routine, pitchers need to throw strikes, fielders need to field the ball, and batters need to hit.
“That’s our message with Fenton, Fenton’s good. At this stage, especially when you’re dealing with 15-to-18-year-old girls, it’s about managing the nerves and what’s going on up here (mentally).
“This group, of all my seasons, is probably my favorite group that I’ve coached, including the four years that my own kid was on the team. They’re carefree, they’re fun, and they seem to rise up to the moment.”
The Midland Chemics and Traverse City West Titans will battle in Saturday’s other Regional No. 1 semifinal at 12 p.m. (noon), with the two winners squaring off for the regional championship at approximately 2 p.m.