DETROIT — Another rally, another trip to East Lansing.
Down 4-0, it looked like the Macomb Dakota softball team was two innings away from the end of their season. Undeterred, the club notched a run in the sixth inning and then rattled off five more in the seventh to top Garden City High 6-5 in the Division 1 state quarterfinal.
The victory ensured Dakota would return to the state semifinal for the second straight year, heading to Michigan State University where the team finished as runner-up last season.
"It was really strange, throughout the whole thing we knew we could do it," Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. "The possibility of a comeback was there, and we just focused on hitting the ball hard."
Both schools sport the 'Cougars' nickname, and the familiarity also extended to a previous meeting. In a May 20 contest, the Cougars from Dakota (34-2) topped their Garden City (28-13) counterparts 18-3.
Fontaine admitted that result could have caused his group to slightly overlook the competition.
"It was the same teams, but they definitely came out with more energy, and we may have already anticipated being in East Lansing," Fontaine said. "They came out and gave us a tough game. I give them credit, they did all they could, but we finally buckled down and put the ball in play in an elimination situation."
The final inning saw the first three Dakota batters reach on a hit by pitch, hit and error. Following an out, senior Kendahl Dunford delivered a two-RBI single to ignite the rally.
A pinch runner for Dunford, sophomore Lauren Bobowski provided another highlight as she got into a pickle on the base paths, diving headfirst into third base to stay alive. She later scored on a RBI groundout by junior Arieanna Grammatico. A passed ball produced the sixth and final run for Dakota.
"The fact that you have to rally again tells us that we need to be better prepared next time," Fontaine said. "I hope now we focus on having a stronger start to not have to get out of a hole again. But, doing it always makes you more confident. The fact that we knew we could come back keeps that pressure off when you need a good at-bat."
Fontaine said part of that confidence came from the way his club won the district final June 3 over Utica Ford II. In that game, Dakota entered the seventh inning trailing 4-2, going on to win 5-4.
"It was crazy, we came into the dugout and said, 'It’s now or never for us,’" Dunford said. "We knew we needed those runs or it would be over, it was really like the Ford game all over again. That's what we were thinking about, so we said, 'Let's get three to tie it, and if we get more, the more the merrier.’"
Those 'merrier' runs proved to be crucial as Garden City attempted a rally of its own in the bottom of the seventh. The 'home' Cougars scored one run, suffering their final out with runners on second and third.
"We played a clean game until the seventh, and quite frankly (Dakota) didn't hit a lot of balls hard," Garden City coach Barry Patterson said. "They found a couple holes and we bobbled a few there. We were anxious to get the outs, because they were easy plays. It happens, we battled and I'm proud of the girls. That's one of the top teams in the state and you won't find us anywhere in the rankings. Give our kids a lot of credit, we gave them all they could handle."
In the circle, Dunford earned the victory, pitching a complete game. She said she was excited to have her hit start the rally that gave her a chance to go back out and pitch the bottom of the seventh.
"I've always like the pressure, I think it's something I do well with," Dunford said. "I knew if I spun the ball and pitched like I have been, we would be good. The infield was doing what we needed and we knew we could finish it up."
"I've probably been asked a hundred times in the past year what has (Dunford) improved upon and every single time I say it is her mental game," Fontaine added. "It was a lot of stress in the final inning, so for her to go out there and make the pitches she needed against some really good hitters, it is very impressive."
Dakota advances to face Mattawan High at 5:30 p.m. June 15 at Michigan State in the state semifinals. Clarkston High and Grandville High sit on the other side of the D-1 bracket.
"With this team, what I'm proudest about is how they've handled pressure," Fontaine said. "We've been the No. 1 ranked team since last year, having the target on our back for every single game this season. Hopefully we can take some of that confidence with us to East Lansing and be prepared for whatever comes at us."