After runner-up finish, Dakota softball looks to build on historic run

By: Timothy Pontzer | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published March 28, 2017

 Macomb Dakota’s Julia Sayles looks to lay down a bunt in front of catcher Arieanna Grammatico during a recent practice.

Macomb Dakota’s Julia Sayles looks to lay down a bunt in front of catcher Arieanna Grammatico during a recent practice.

Photo by Donna Agusti

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MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Following the best season in program history, Macomb Dakota softball has high hopes for the upcoming season.

The Cougars posted a 38-3 record last year and in the process captured the Macomb Area Conference Red Division title for the second straight year. In the playoffs, the club advanced the furthest it ever had, finishing as the Division 1 runner-up.

“Playing in the Red is a challenge, as it is one of the toughest leagues in the state,” said Dakota coach Rick Fontaine. “We’ve won it the past two years, and that’s always our first goal. Then it is all about moving on in the playoffs, and we want to get back to East Lansing and have another shot at the state championship.”

Fontaine only saw four graduate from that 2016 squad, bringing back many players who gained valuable experience during the run to the state title game.

“We had a lot of youth on the varsity last year that didn’t have to play a significant role,” Fontaine said. “We were able to groom them to replace those seniors. We’re real positive that they can step right in and lead us to continued success.”

Dakota is replacing those upperclassmen with a senior class of five. Fontaine cited that group as the leaders for his club both on and off the field.

“Our seniors will help us in many areas this season,” Fontaine said. “We’ve got a really good hitting team and have a lot of team speed. I’m lucky to have a great group of girls. They do great in school and care about their grades. They’re respectful and come from great families.”

All five seniors will play at the next level. Pitcher Kendahl Dunford is headed to Florida International followed by second baseman Kattie Popko (Madonna University), first baseman Julia Salisbury (Saginaw Valley State University), pitcher Julia Sayles (Hillsdale College) and outfielder Melissa Charbonneau (Lawrence Tech University).

Fontaine pointed to his two team captains, Dunford and Popko, as two catalysts for the Cougars. He called Dunford the ace of the pitching staff.

“Kendahl is an intimidating pitcher, a power arm,” Fontaine said. “She takes command on the mound and attacks hitters. She has improved over the four years with her mental game and has tremendous confidence in her abilities and teammates behind her.”

The coach referenced Popko’s abilities at the plate and her willingness to play multiple positions as a major help to the team.

“Kattie simply leads by example,” Fontaine said. “She has been a great hitter and always done whatever we’ve asked of her. She moved from outfield to second this season and has been a true team player, an outstanding young lady.”

Dunford has earned 73 career victories on the mound, the most in school history. She has set a personal goal to reach the 100-win mark while also having team goals that build off of last year.

“I really enjoy the role of being a captain,” Dunford said. “Being the pitcher, you already have a role like that, and I’m who simply wants to be able to help coach Fontaine. Getting to 100 wins would be amazing, but we made history last season, and I want to be able to do that again. We want people to know our name again. Last year, a lot of teams didn’t think we could do it, but that was motivation.”

Popko has tallied 76 RBIs during her career, seventh most in team history. Like Dunford, Popko is a four-year varsity player who agreed that the Cougars will use last season as a springboard for success this season.

“Our team already has high expectations, so we are going to do what we do best and work together to accomplish big things,” Popko said. “The team is going to stay focused on the goal of being the best we can possibly be and getting that ring this year. Our greatest strength is that no matter what’s going on during practice, regular season games or even the state championship game, we have each other’s backs. We are always supportive of each other and that’s what makes us unique.”

Dunford agreed that the team’s bond is Dakota’s best attribute.

“Definitely a major strength is our chemistry,” Dunford said. “We get done at 5 p.m., and we always do things together after like dinner, movies or just hanging out at each other’s houses. There are a lot of different ages on the team, but we have been able to bond.”

Her coach also agreed, proud of how his team stands up for one another in every situation.

“They all have each other’s backs and that bond only added to the success we might have,” Fontaine said. “Sometimes that’s the worst thing in team sports when teammates go at each other, but we never have that issue. This team knows its job and what everyone can do, and we’re excited to see that play out this year.”

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