New coach, new outlook for Dakota softball

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Macomb Chronicle | Published April 22, 2024

 Macomb Dakota senior Gracie Maloney pitches during a matchup against Utica Ford II on April 9 at Dakota High School.

Macomb Dakota senior Gracie Maloney pitches during a matchup against Utica Ford II on April 9 at Dakota High School.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

 The Macomb Dakota dugout cheers on teammates.

The Macomb Dakota dugout cheers on teammates.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Macomb Dakota softball has always prided itself on its unity.

They want to be the most energetic, the loudest, and the team that showcases chemistry better than anyone else on and off the field.

“I feel like our energy is different,” senior Gracie Maloney said. “We bring a different energy to almost every game we play. Nobody can keep up with our energy. We’re a very loud and energetic team, and that just carries on in the field and hittingwise. I feel like not very many teams bring the energy we start off with.”

With Dan Vitale at the helm for the past five seasons, the emphasis was on being a family and honoring the culture of the program that all Dakota teams strive for.

Tallying a 93-18-1 record, three straight Macomb Area Conference Red titles, three straight district championships, two regional titles, and a runner-up finish in 2022, it’s safe to say Vitale succeeded.

But following an underwhelming season by the program’s standards last year, falling in the regional championship, and with Vitale now the head coach at the University of Detroit Mercy, the spotlight is on first-year head coach Shelby Weeks to lead the Cougars.

“It’s been good,” Weeks said. “First year, it’s just a lot of changes and a lot of different outlooks on things. We’re just trying to transition into taking the lead and developing a good strategy for each team.”

Weeks served as an assistant coach under Vitale last season and has been the freshman basketball coach at Dakota since 2019 while also teaching physical education at the high school. A standout softball player at Warren Woods Tower, Weeks played collegiately at Saginaw Valley State University from 2013 to 2016.

Playing the sport at all different levels, Maloney said the practices have a different feel to them this season.

“I feel practices have been really intense this year,” Maloney said. “We’re really focused now. Last year, we had some fun days. This year, we’re really focused on what we’re doing.”

Maloney, who primarily controlled the shortstop position last year, will be the Cougars ace in the rotation alongside senior Hannah Palmer and sophomores Brooke Cahill and Maddie Guthrie.

Maloney showed last season that she can be a top-end rotation arm, striking out 21 in a win over Grosse Pointe North.

The only thing stopping her was the talented arms Dakota already possessed with Megan Nuechterlein, now playing at Kent State University, and Alyssa Balcom, now playing at Oakland University.

Now, it’s Maloney’s time to be the leader, and she said it took a minute to adjust to her new role.

“I wasn’t the starting pitcher last year, and this year I am,” Maloney said. “I have to take on a whole position role. I was a shortstop last year and now I’m a pitcher, so now I kind of take control of the ball and the game now and pace the game for our whole team. That’s different for me.”

Luckily for the Cougars pitching staff, the defensive unit has been impressive so far with a bunch of new names and faces.

Junior Kasey Ross, junior Annika Sylver, junior Brooke Gaffke, junior Julia Nowicki, junior Katie Rusher, and sophomore Kiley Phelan lead the infield unit with senior Bella Crager behind the plate.

Crager is everything as advertised behind the plate with a great arm and a strong knowledge for the game. With a younger infield, communication is key, and Crager said the newcomers are adjusting well.

“We basically graduated our whole entire infield, so I feel like our defense has been really good for just all new players at the position,” Crager said. “For the players that have moved up from JV, they’re showing up and showing us what they can do.”

Senior Allison Fluker, senior Julia Sandles, senior Alexa Yaklin, and junior Jenna Higgins are expected to cover the Dakota outfield.

Offensively, senior Sidnee Puffpaff, a utility player defensively, has been a force at the plate with Sandles, a lefty hitter, providing speed on the base path and Phelan bringing the power.

Dakota can hit from top to bottom with any player possessing the ability to provide a boost offensively, but Dakota’s play on the field wasn’t what kept them from succeeding last year.

Coming off a trip to the state finals in 2022, rankings and the thought of making it to East Lansing took over the team’s mindset.

“That year, we were ranked No. 1 the whole entire year from start to finish, so I feel like we just went in there thinking we could just walk right through anyone because we were No. 1 in the state,” Maloney said.

“We were thinking state finals the whole time and not going at it one at a time instead of not taking every game for granted,” Crager said.

Currently 4-1 and 2-0 in league play, the goal of continuing its MAC Red reign is still a priority, along with their streak of district titles, but Dakota is taking everything one game at a time.

Under Weeks, the feeling of family is something that runs through the team’s veins between team sleepovers and team dinners, but the mental part of softball will be a major point of emphasis.

“We’re really getting better at the mental side of the game,” Weeks said. “I think we’re really honing in on what we say to ourselves, our approaches, what we’re doing in our head and what we’re saying to ourselves in our head, and how we’re getting prepared for games and how we’re getting prepared for practices. That’s been a key factor we’ve been trying to get everyone to buy into.”