HANCOCK - A new era of Hancock High School athletics will begin today, and it'll start in the most fitting way, with a rivalry competition against Houghton.
The Bulldogs girls' softball team, which is funded by parents but still directly affiliated with the school and the Michigan High School Athletic Association, will make its debut performance in a doubleheader at 4 and 6 p.m. today at Houghton.
"We as a parent group saw interest in putting a team together, went to the Hancock (Public Schools) administration this winter and got approval from the board," said Randy Heinonen, treasurer for the group and softball organizer for Little League, who cited the particular influence of Paul Dube and Anne Brunet in organizing the team. "We had about 20 girls show up to play, so it was pretty easy to put together."
But it certainly hasn't been easy to get on the field. In fact, today's games will be the first time any Hancock player has been on a softball field this year. The team, which is allowing girls to participate in both softball and track and field, has practiced three to four days a week in the high school gymnasium after track practice.
"The hardest thing is practicing indoors," said Sgt. Maj. Randy Meyer, head coach of the team and Junior ROTC instructor at Hancock. "We'll step on the field (today) for the first time. It'll be an adjustment they'll have to make."
The team has already had games canceled due to long-lasting winter weather, and another cold front forecasted for later this week forced the debut games to take place today, instead of later this week. Counting today, Hancock has four doubleheaders scheduled before districts, which start May 28.
"We've had to push back games and make them closer together. It'll be fast and furious until districts," Meyer said.
The season will go by quickly, but Meyer, who has 30 years of coaching experience in Little League baseball and men's slowpitch softball, knows building a program from scratch will likely be a slow process.
Of the 21 players on the team, about half of them haven't played softball before, and there's only one senior on the team. The invitation was opened up to all girls in the high school, and about half of the team is splitting time with track and field.
"It'll be a big learning curve this year," Meyer said. "My expectation this year is to get organized, get set, get everything in place ... and I want the girls to have fun, that's the biggest thing."
In consideration of the investment they made to participate, everyone will get a chance to prove themselves, but Meyer noted the team will stake its success on pitching. Dube will coach Carolyn Parker, Elle Rowe, Sara Puuri and Claire Meyer, who will rotate on the mound. Olivia Rouleau and McKenzie Brunet will likely be the Bulldogs' big bats.
Assistant coach Kelsae Eliszewski will lead the team in today's doubleheader with coach Meyer out of town.
The Bulldogs will play their home opener May 18 at the Houghton County Fairgrounds.