By Nate Thompson

MONTAGUE – In the past, high school graduation speeches were typically reserved for the class president at Montague High School. 

But the plan has changed this year, with the Class of 2021’s three co-valedictorians, including Bailey Belinger, also scheduled to take the stage during commencement.

Montague pitcher Bailey Belinger. Photo/Leo Valdez

“I haven’t thought too much about my speech,” admitted Belinger,  who sports an incredible 4.38 grade point average. “But I know I’d want to tell my classmates to continue to challenge themselves and to find someone to push them toward whatever they set out to achieve.”

Belinger has lived by those words in both the classroom and on the softball diamond at Montague, with great success in both areas. The Wildcats’ pitching ace has had a remarkable spring, leading the area in strikeouts with 209 in just over 100 innings of work, and in earned run average with a miniscule 1.24 mark.

She has helped Montague to a 16-8 overall record, and with Belinger toeing the rubber in districts, the Wildcats will be a tough out in the upcoming Division 3 tournament hosted by North Muskegon. Montague opens against West Michigan Conference foe Ravenna on June 5, with the winner facing the host Norse in the finals. 

Any batter who has gone down on strikes against Belinger – and there have been many – can say they whiffed against a future Ivy League student. Belinger was accepted over spring break to prestigious Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she plans on majoring in environmental engineering. 

As good as she is in softball, Belinger’s choice of the elite university means her career in the sport will end at the conclusion of the current season.

That’s understandable, because she’s definitely an ace in the classroom, and will probably go on to accomplish big things in life.

Belinger said there have been many people in her life who have pushed her to be an academic standout.

“Definitely my mom, Christina,” she said. “She always encouraged me to challenge myself, starting when I was young when she taught me to count to 10 in Spanish and also in sign.”

Belinger delivers a warmup throw. Photo/Leo Valdez

Belinger said the top students at Montague also encourage each other to be the best they can be, while her teachers have been pivotal with inspiring her to sign up for advanced classes and making sure she’s getting the most out of them. 

Belinger said her start in softball wasn’t nearly as smooth as the early Spanish lessons with her mom. 

“I started pitching in Little League and my dad (Brandon) was my coach,” she said. “But after my first season, I was really, really bad. My dad kind of wanted to pull me (from pitching) because it was like there’s no way that I’m gonna have any kind of future with this. 

“But I kept working on it, and in middle school, there was another girl in my class that was a pretty good pitcher, so it was nice to have that competition and we pushed each other.”

Belinger said she really increased her skill set in recent years by working with former Fremont High School and Grand Valley State University standout McKenzie Supernaw, who worked as a pitching instructor for a local program called NextLevelPlayers. 

“She helped me focus on improving the small things,” Belinger said. “Just the small adjustments in my windup and release, which have helped in perfecting my location. And things like spinning my fingers on my rise ball.”

Now, Belinger said, she has the confidence to throw any pitch when facing the heart of any opponent’s lineup — fastballs, off-speed and spin pitches. 

“I don’t really stick with the same spot, just so (hitters) don’t get too comfortable,” she said.

Belinger is also one of Montague’s top hitters. Photo/Leo Valdez

Montague coach Amy Myers knew Belinger was locked in this season when she struck out 14 batters in a 3-2 loss in 10 innings to undefeated Oakridge on April 27. 

“She’s a team captain and a really hard worker,” Myers said. “She definitely leads by example. She worked really hard in the offseason and she’s one of the kids I can count on, knowing she’s giving it her all every time she steps on the field. She takes pride in her effort.” 

Belinger isn’t too shabby in the batter’s box either. As of last week, she had a gaudy batting average of .464, trailing only catcher Gabby Moreau’s mark of .479. Moreau has also slugged seven home runs on the year.

Other top hitters for Montague include Alissa Wynn at .438 and Presley Davis at .391. 

The only bugaboo for the Wildcats has been their occasionally shaky defense, which hurt in the extra-innings thriller against Oakridge, when a couple of errors proved costly. 

“Once in a while we have some defensive lapses,” Myers said. “The girls need to realize that small errors can lead to big things.”

Bellinger knows defense will be pivotal if the Wildcats want to have a lengthy postseason run. That’s crucial to her, because once it’s over, her softball career will also come to an end.

“Yeah, it was a tough decision, but I figured I should focus solely on school,” she said about her college plans. “But I’ve thought about maybe playing club softball, because I know I’d miss playing it.”