By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – At this time last week, Thursday’s doubleheader between Muskegon Community College and Kalamazoo Community College loomed like a championship showdown.
The two softball teams were tied for first in the Western Conference of the Michigan Community College Athletic Association, and Thursday’s games mark the end of the regular season schedule.
But MCC hit a rough spot last week, losing three of four games last Friday and Saturday to fall into third place in the conference. The Jayhawks may beat Kalamazoo CC Thursday, but no trophy will be waiting.
But that’s certainly not the end of the world, or even the season, according to first-year MCC coach Ryan Schalk.
His Jayhawks (16-11 overall, 11-3 conference) have had a season of extreme highs and lows, and he’s ready to hit the high road again, particularly with the National Junior College Athletic Association Division 2 regional tournament coming up in a week.
“Part of me is glad we lost a few games – now as we get ready for the tournament we can work on a few things that need to be worked on,” Schalk said. “You can tell players they need work when they’re winning, but they don’t always believe that.”
The Jayhawks started the season on a sour note, posting a 1-8 record over two early season tournaments in Georgia and Illinois.
Both tournaments included a number of elite junior college teams, and Schalk knew the losses were not a true reflection of his team. But he worried about the players falling into a mental funk, and addressed the issue with the team.
“I was worried that they would think they were not a good team,” Schalk said. “I knew once we got back to playing teams in our own conference we were going to be in the top three, and that’s where we’re going to finish.”
The Jayhawks rebounded from the rough start, to say the least.
After losing the first half of the conference season due to inclement weather, they reeled off 14 straight victories and won 15 of 16 games. Their hot streak left them in a dogfight with Kalamazoo CC at the top of the conference standings.
Pitching played a big part in the winning streak, particularly the efforts of Megan VanderWal, a sophomore who has posted a 10-1 record with a 1.41 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 15 walks in conference play this season.
“With so many games being cancelled, we were able to throw Megan a lot,” Schalk said. “Our number two and three pitchers are good, but Megan is a very good sophomore and we feel comfortable with her on the mound as much as possible.”
The Jayhawks bats were also smoking through most of the conference schedule, according to Schalk. Leading sluggers in conference play for MCC were Megan Jean (.426, 18 RBIs, 2 home runs), Meghan Birr (.420, 10 RBIs), Alyson Behnke (.413, 4 triples, six stolen bases), Emily Peake (.333, 2 home runs, 17 RBIs), Sarah Ferenz (.333, 11 RBIs) and Caten Teff (.375).
“During one stretch we outscored our opponents 90-10 or something very close to that,” Schalk said.
But the hot streak came to a screeching last weekend, when MCC dropped a doubleheader to Lansing Community College on Friday and split a pair with Kalamazoo Community College on Saturday.
The losses ruined the anticipated showdown with Kalamazoo CC.
“The funny thing is we played (Lansing CC) the Monday before and won both games, 6-2 and 9-0,” Schalk said. “Then they came to our place and beat us 6-1 and 11-1. We had five errors in the second game.
“The next day we split with Kellogg, winning 9-1 and losing 3-2. We played fine in the second game. We just kept hitting the ball right at their outfielders, instead of in the gaps like we had been doing.”
Schalk admits it was tough to lose a shot at first place, but he thinks the defeats might provide his team with the proper motivation heading into next week’s NJCAA regional tournament.
The tournament is scheduled for Wednesday through Friday in Lansing, with the champion earning a berth in the NJCAA Division 2 national tournament in Mississippi.
The Jayhawks won the Division 2 national championship in 2009, under former head coach Matt Houseman.
“For a while things were almost going too good – I knew at some point the law of averages would bring us back down a little bit,” Schalk said. “They say losing can be good. I know confidence is important, but sometimes you get too full of yourself and don’t show up and do the little things right.”
The rest of the Jayhawk roster consists of Emily Manchester, Hayley Brockelbank, Amanda Chaffee, Mary Guidice, Sydney Tharp and Jessica Gillings.