EAST LANSING — Redemption.
That was the word that nearly every single Macomb Dakota softball player and coach used when talking about their 4-3 victory against Grandville High in the Division 1 title game June 17.
The win marked the first state championship in program history, one year removed from being tantalizingly close. Dakota fell in the 2016 finale, using that as motivation for a chance to return for a different outcome.
"It's tough coming back here, when you get this far, a bounce can go any way, sometimes for you or against you," Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. "Being able to claw all the way back and finish the season with this win says a lot about us, I'm so proud. These girls are gritty, we have a bunch of pit bulls on this team."
Dakota used a fortunate bounce to secure the crown, winning in walk-off fashion in extra innings. With the bases loaded and the score tied 3-3, the Cougars had two outs and two strikes against them.
A passed ball allowed senior Kattie Popko to sprint down the base path and steal home for the championship.
"I told her, if it hits the backstop you're gone," Fontaine said. "She has great speed, one of the best base runners I've ever coached. She just needed to beat the pitcher to the plate and she was able to get it for us."
Popko said she played the scenario out in the back of her mind, hoping she would have an opportunity to deliver for her club.
"It was an immediate reaction, I knew I had to have no hesitation," Popko said. "When they got the strikeout (for the second out of the inning) it was disheartening. I knew I had to go on contact or anything possible, and that's what I did."
Popko slid safely into the plate, her speed negating Grandville even the opportunity to attempt to tag her out.
"As soon as I was halfway there, I knew I had it," Popko said. "I didn't even get tagged, I was actually hit with the ball."
In his 13th year at the helm, Fontaine admitted it was not the most ideal way to finally win a championship, but he will take it any way it comes.
"I'm sure it's pretty tough on (Grandville), it would be tough for us to lose that way, but that's just softball" Fontaine said. "We didn't have a lot of imposing hits, we just did enough to get runners on and move them over. Sometimes you get a result like that, and in a battle with a heck of a team, you take them any way you can."
Fontaine was quick to praise his starting pitcher for the victory. In her final time in the circle for Dakota, senior Kendahl Dunford tossed a complete game, striking out 11.
"She gave up three runs in the first three innings, but then she settled down and just dominated the rest of the way," Fontaine said. "In my opinion, she's the top pitcher in the state. I'm very satisfied for her."
Dakota's ace was thrilled to end her career with a title clincher.
"This is amazing, this is something I've been working for since my freshman year," Dunford said. "I had a lot of people tell me that I was never going to make it. All of the things that myself and the team sacrificed to get here, it's all worth it. Last year was a lot of nerves, but this year that changed, our mindset changed and we knew we could do it."
Dunford delivered a single to load the bases in the eighth. After being lifted for a pinch-runner, she was nervous in the dugout watching the drama unfold. When Popko sprinted home to swipe home, Dunford turned away, unable to watch.
"I couldn't watch it because I had been watching the whole time, and it hadn't been working out," Dunford said. "My superstition kicked in, so I turned around to see what could happen. Even in the last inning, anything crazy can happen. It just comes down to who wants it more."
Dakota opened the game with two runs in the bottom of the first, with Grandville quickly responding with two off Dunford in the second. Each side notched a single run in the third before going scoreless until the extra inning.
Senior Julia Salisbury accounted for all of Dakota's RBIs, hitting a two-RBI double in the first and an RBI single in the third.
"We all wanted to come back here and get that ring," Salisbury said. "It feels so good, we just had to keep battling. It definitely is redemption."
Dunford agreed, saying one of the most redeeming things for the team was its ability to deal with being the top-ranked team in the state all season long.
"We worked so hard, this is what that gets you," Dunford said. "Every single girl on this team had the mentality to want this so bad. All year we had a huge target on our back. Being No. 1 all year, we heard about it a lot, but now after winning this nobody can say we're overrated, this proves that we're No. 1."