EAST LANSING — It’s moments before the biggest softball game of the season — the state final.
While the opponents are taking infield practice, the team from Warren Regina is behind the third-base dugout, circled up, doing a dance routine to the “Hand Jive.”
“We always cheer and we always dance before the game,” explained team captain Marisa Muglia. “It keeps us loose and it helps us focus on what’s going to happen and gets all the jitters out.”
It works like a charm, if Saturday’s result is any indication. Muglia and her Saddlelite teammates survived a real nail-biter, defeating Howell 3-2 in extra innings to win the Division 1 state softball championship.
“I gotta keep calm,” said Muglia, the winning pitcher. “I can’t get amped up, because once I get amped up, I start over-throwing. It was hard in that last, eighth, inning when they had the runners on second and third. I kept it down and relaxed, and just got the outs I needed.”
With the game into extra innings tied at 2 apiece, Howell threatened by sending runners to second and third in the top half of the eighth. But Muglia bore down and struck out a Highlander batter to cut off the rally.
Batting first in the bottom half of the frame, Muglia reached base with a single. Freshman Jenna Holt came in as a courtesy runner, and when Mia Konyvka bunted her ahead, Holt saw third base open and kept charging ahead, reaching safely.
Howell tried to counter-act by intentionally walking Abby Hornberger and Kiley Dulapa to load the bases (increasing the chances of getting force outs), but Adriana James hit a tapper back to the mound, which Howell pitcher Molly Carney couldn’t field cleanly, and Holt crossed the plate with the winning run.
“We kind of fell asleep a little bit on a bunt, the runner got to third and we loaded the bases,” Howell coach Ron Pezzoni said. “We got probably a ball we wanted that we probably could have made a play, it tipped off Molly’s glove, and that’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.”
“We just did what we had to do in the one inning. Small ball obviously was what was working in the eighth,” said Muglia, who will continue her softball career at Saginaw Valley State University next season.
Regina (30-11) scored its first two runs in the second inning. With Dulapa, James and Miranda Nichols loading the bases following a fielder’s choice and a pair of walks, Jacquline Jozefczyk punched a solid hit to right field, which drove in Dulapa and James.
Howell (36-4) came back by scoring single runs in the fifth and sixth innings, forcing the game to extend beyond the standard seven innings.
Previously, Regina defeated Bay City Western 4-0 in Thursday’s semi-final, which increased pulse rates as well. The game — which was delayed for three hours by rain — was scoreless for the first six innings before the Saddlelites struck for all their runs in their final time at bat.
That rally started in a fashion similar to the championship game.
Muglia (who pitched a complete-game two-hitter) led off the seventh with a single, and Holt came on to run for Muglia. Konyvka laid down a bunt and Holt over-ran second-base, but Bay City Western’s throw was off-target and Holt was able to ramble home with the eventual game-winner.
Regina added more runs when Miranda Nicholas singled home James and Hornberger, and she scored on Jozefczyk’s single.
Diane Laffey — the state’s all-time winningest softball coach with 1,149 victories — has now led the Saddlelites to a victory all seven times they’ve played in the state final. Their other wins came in 2015, 2004-07 and 1989.
“I was a little nervous when they told me that the other day that we hadn’t lost once we went to the finals,” Laffey said. “That was a little scary.”
But if Laffey ever needs to calm those nerves, she probably knows what to do: brush up on the “Hand Jive” and jump into the circle with the rest of the players.
“They’re a super bunch of kids, they’re resilient; they battle back, they get along really well,” Laffey said. “The team chemistry’s outstanding, just outstanding. Seniors could resent freshmen but they don’t. They’ve been really good, it’s a fun team.”