Macomb Dakota senior Alyssa Balcom leads off the base path during a team practice on May 19 at Dakota High School.

Macomb Dakota senior Alyssa Balcom leads off the base path during a team practice on May 19 at Dakota High School.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Dakota softball’s ‘fight’ to state finals fueled by family-like culture

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Macomb Chronicle | Published May 25, 2023

 Senior Brooklyn Plitz makes a throw after fielding a grounder.

Senior Brooklyn Plitz makes a throw after fielding a grounder.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

 Sophomore Jenna Higgins awaits a hit during practice.

Sophomore Jenna Higgins awaits a hit during practice.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


MACOMB TOWNSHIP — For those on the outside looking in on Macomb Dakota softball, the 2022 season ended with a state finals loss to Allen Park.

For the Dakota players, the most important memory of last year’s state finals run was a surprise visit from assistant coach Bill Sobkowicz at Michigan State University. Sobkowicz was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer of the plasma cells, in June of last year.

Under coach Dan Vitale and his solidified senior group, Dakota softball is a family on and off the field, and because of that, Dakota senior pitcher Alyssa Balcom said this year’s state title journey is about more than just resolving unfinished business.

“As much as we want to fight for ourselves to get back there, we want to fight to get back there for him (Sobkowicz), too,” Balcom said.

At 27-2 on the season, well on their way to securing their third straight Macomb Area Conference Red title and currently the No. 1 ranked team in Division 1, according to Michigan High School Athletic Association rankings, Dakota has proved again this season why they’re the team to beat.

Aside from dominating MAC Red competition to the tune of a 10-0 record, Dakota also captured the Michigan Challenge Tournament in Canton last weekend against a field of some of the top teams in the state.

With eight returning starters this season, Vitale said his group came in ready to work.

“They came in this season like they were on a mission, and it wasn’t me pushing them,” Vitale said. “It was on them. They came in like, ‘Let’s go.’”

With a team that prides itself on family and support, there was no better way to enter the season than with a team bonding experience.

Like the uniforms Dakota wears each game, that experience was created by its senior core of Megan Nuechterlein, Brooklyn Plitz, Faith Maloney and Balcom.

“We knew that we wanted our team chemistry to be very strong this year, so as soon as tryouts were done, I think two or three days after tryouts were done, we had a team sleepover,” Plitz said. “We were like, ‘Alright, everyone is getting to know everybody.’ The new girls were like, ‘Oh my gosh, these girls are crazy,’ but we love them and we love our team.”

When she’s not coordinating events, the first team All-State infielder is dominating at the plate alongside Nuechterlein, Maloney and Balcom; juniors Gracie Maloney and Sidnee Puffpaff; and sophomore Jenna Higgins.

Nuechterlein, a Kent State commit, was named State Champs! Softball Player of the Year in 2022 and has continued to show why she should be in the conversation this season, leading one of the best pitching staffs in the state.

Gracie Maloney, a North Texas commit, has made an All-State case of her own this season, striking out 21 batters in a May 1 victory of Grosse Pointe North, and if Nuechterlein and Maloney aren’t enough, Balcom, an Oakland University commit, has been lethal with her pitch mix on the mound this season.

“If we score three or two runs, there’s a good chance we’re getting a ‘W,’” Vitale said. “These pitchers are that good.”

For Balcom, Nuechterlein and Plitz, an Oakland University commit, it’s almost the end of an incredible era for the trio at Dakota.

Once the only three sophomores on varsity, they now are soon-to-be three-straight league title champions, and they’re gearing up for their final state tournament run together.

Plitz said it’s a surreal feeling to end her high school career with the players she started it with.

“It’s bittersweet,” Plitz said. “We all love playing together. I played with Megan when I was 10 years old. We played on the same travel team. I’ve known Alyssa. We all came from the Batbusters organization, and it was just really nice to watch each other grow. It’s kind of bittersweet because me and Alyssa are going to college together to play softball, and Megan is heading off to Kent State, and I know we’re going to visit her so many times.”

Dakota will open district play against MAC White’s Macomb L’Anse Creuse North on June 2 at 2 p.m. at Anchor Bay High School. Dakota has outscored North 16-1 in their last two state tournament meetings (2022 and 2021 district semifinals).

Aside from their talent on the field, Dakota’s biggest strength arguably takes place in the dugout and off the field day in and day out.

“We work really hard at practice, and we practice extremely hard, but they have so much fun together,” Vitale said. “I can’t put words together on how this group gets together and has a blast. It’s one of the funnest teams I’ve coached.”

As for the seniors, regardless of the outcome, their future with Dakota is far from over. Like the impact previous senior classes have had on them, they’ll continue to make their mark on the upcoming Dakota teams.

Like the culture they helped establish, Dakota softball is a family they’ll always be a part of even after they graduate.

“Even after we leave, I’m still going to come back and see them,” Balcom said.

“I love our little babies,” Plitz said.