Defending state champs look to fortify pitching staff
For the first time in program history, Farmington Mercy's softball team enters a new season as the defending state champion.
The Marlins concluded a record-setting campaign last year by claiming the Division 1 state championship at Michigan State University. Mercy blanked Macomb Dakota, 4-0, in the title game behind a sterling five-hit shutout by Andrea Elmore in 90-degree temperatures.
Mercy finished with a school-record 43 victories en route to that historic title, tying for the second highest win total in state history with five other teams. White Lake Lakeland (2007) and Bay City All Saints (1999) own the state record with 44, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association record book.
The Marlins' dream season capped an ambitious plan Alec Lesko and his staff developed when he took over as head coach in spring 2014 from his daughter Sara McGavin, who remains as an assistant coach.
"We started out three years ago and what we had tried to do was create something that we could build upon every year," said Lesko, a former coach at Trenton. "We wanted to use some traditional things that existed ahead of time with the total mindset of winning a championship. At first it was the Catholic League championship and the next was to go as deep as we could into the state tournament.
"Our very first year, we lost in the regional final to a very good Canton team. Then our second year, we lost in the semifinals up at Michigan State to Caledonia, which still has a very fine thrower and is one of two or three schools favored to win the state title this year.
"When we left that season, coming into last year, the kids were completely focused on getting back to Michigan State and taking it a step further," he added. "We had some great senior leadership last year, which had everybody on board. We had a great season and we were able to go all the way through with only two non-conference losses to some highly competitive teams."
Entering with confidence
While Mercy enters 2017 with confidence, a good amount of experience and state bragging rights, it will be forced to defend its title without three graduated players who were vital to last year's success.
Junior catcher Anna Dixon posted the third highest batting average (.477) for Mercy last season. (Photo: Junfu Han | Staff Photographer)
First baseman and backup pitcher Abby Krzywiecki was last year's Miss Softball, now playing at South Alabama. Elmore, the starting pitcher and a Clawson resident, is now doing her thing at Mississippi Valley State. Third baseman Cari Padula headed off Western Michigan University.
"Coming into the year, we have some big shoes to fill," Lesko said. "We have to replace those senior leaders who we had last year. Not only were they great mentors and did the things you want out of leaders, but they were also tremendous performers. We lost 43 victories, 30 home runs and 150 RBI from those three players combined."
This year's quartet of returning seniors will not only provide strong leadership, but give Mercy more than adequate offensive and defensive production.
Lesko's main challenge is replacing pitching stalwarts Elmore (30 wins last year) and Krzywiecki (13 wins).
Two of those seniors, Nicole Belans and Shannon Gibbons, handled middle infield duties last year as the starting second baseman and shortstop, respectively. They are former pitchers who are attempting to regain their form this season to give the Marlins another solid one-two punch on the mound.
A pair of incoming freshmen, Olivia Iafrate and Samantha Shea, are pitchers by trade and also viable candidates to fit into this year's rotation.
"We have to replace both pitchers. They are gone and we don't have very much experience in returning pitchers," Lesko said. "(Belan and Gibbons) have pitched when they were younger as freshmen, but it's been three years. They are working really hard at trying to raise their level up in terms of pitching.
"But we have two freshmen who are pitchers. That's what they do. We are trying to get them up to speed as far as varsity goes and where we're at and what we are used to. I'm real happy with where they are at right now.
"Between the four of the them, hopefully, by early May, we'll figure out how we will proceed," he added. "We have a lot of work to do before then. But pitching, right now, is our No. 1 concern."
Strong senior leadership
When not pitching, Belan and Gibbons will play their important infield roles.
Senior speedster Shannon Gibbons led the Marlins last year with 14 stolen bases. She will play shortstop this year when not pitching.
The team's other two seniors are veteran outfielders Sophia VanAcker (center field) and Mary Reebar (right field), both of whom were members of Mercy's Division 1 state championship ice hockey team the past two seasons.
VanAcker, a southpaw hitter headed to Lehigh University next year to play softball, smacked a first-inning triple in last year's title game that plated the eventual game-winning run. VanAcker batted .532 last season to lead all returning players in that category. She also finished with team-highs in base hits (72) and triples (five) and was second in runs scored (57).
Belans blasted a home run in the final inning of last year's championship game, which sparked a three-run rally to account for the final winning margin. She batted .378 last year and registered three home runs and 41 RBIs.
"Sophia, as all of my seniors have, has taken on a great leadership role and teaching the younger players how we do it here," Lesko said. "Sophia has some quickness and hand speed, but her ability to get on base makes her a threat all the time. She can slap it through the infield or drive it over their head. Sophia was on base all the time last year and I see no reason why she can't do the same this year.
"Mary could get a lot of time in the middle infield. She is very good at second base, especially when one of the seniors is pitching. She is a speedster and can get on base with a bunt, get a slip hit or drive the ball.
"We look for Nicole and Shannon to be in the middle of the lineup, in more of a dominant role than they were last year," he added. "Nicole has surprising power and has an uncanny ability to come up with the big hit at the biggest moment. Shannon also has tremendous skills and she has the ability to get extra-base hits."
Junior Anna Dixon (catcher, utility), who hit a healthy .477 last year (third on the team), and sophomore Sarah Cassidy (left field) are other returning starters.
Juniors Julia Kleismit (utility) and Emily Rzepecki (utility), sophomore Sarah Cassidy (left field) and freshmen power hitter Caroline Carlson, Dunya Kizy (catcher) and Emma Dompierre (first base/outfield) are other Marlins to watch. Sophomore Colleen Thomson and freshmen Libby Chevalier, Samantha Shea and Claire Garner are other members of this year's roster.
"This team has real good leadership and experience in big games and I think that will be a team strength," said Lesko, who is also assisted by Judy Christie, Kat Garry, Nancy Malinowski and Jerry Ashe. "Our returning batters have an on-base percentage which is high and so we're looking for that to be contagious.
"Our areas of concerns are our youth in the circle and the square, pitcher and catcher," he said. "We just hope they grow fast. I think we will be very competitive this year, but it's just too early to tell how we will do in those big games with a lot of rookies playing. There's going to be a lot of teaching going on this year; a lot of basics."
Excited to get going
The Marlins, who lost only two games last year, also enter the 2017 season as the defending Mercy tournament, Catholic League, district and regional champions.
Mary Reebar is one of four seniors who will provide leadership and experience for the defending state champion Marlins this year. (Photo: Junfu Han | Staff Photographer)
Mercy is scheduled to get the season underway April 5 at home against Taylor Kennedy and then travel April 8 to Blissfield for tournament play. Its first scheduled Catholic League Central Division games are at Marian (April 26) and home against Ladywood (April 28).
No matter who is on the schedule, Lesko knows the Marlins must be ready for every challenge they face this season.
"We're excited to get this thing started, that's for sure," Lesko said. "We know the bull's-eye is definitely our on backs. I shared that info with our players. There are a lot of coaches around the state, just like myself, who want to play the best and I know that's where our players are at. You always want to play the best competition.
"Everyone is always telling me it's really difficult to get there (and win a state championship)," he added. "But it's even harder to repeat. I guess we're going to find out."
Mercy softball head coach Alec Lesko is excited to get the new season started, although he knows the Marlins will have a bull's-eyes on their backs as the defending state champions.