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Cougars return to state title game; will meet Grandville at 12:30 p.m. at Michigan State University

EAST LANSING >> Last year’s run through the state softball tournament may have been too easy for Dakota.

This year’s run to the Division 1 state championship game today at 12:30 p.m. at Michigan State University has been touch-and-go.

That could be a good thing for the Cougars.

“You play those closer games and it kind of gets you used to those situations,” Dakota coach Rick Fontaine said. “Sometimes when you’re not used to that and you’re in a close game, everybody tightens up and then things get worse and all of a sudden you’re making errors. This season has been a nice test to show that we can recover from that.”

The Cougars needed a seventh-inning rally in the district final and then again in the quarterfinals to stay alive. They also edged Stevenson, 2-1, in a district semi.

“We’ve shown we can do anything we put our minds to,” Dakota pitcher Kendahl Dunford said. “We’ve shown we’ve wanted it more when it comes down to it. We have the right mindset going into (today).”

Last season, they outscored their first seven tournament opponents by a combined 57-3. In the state championship game, Mercy blanked them, 4-0.

“We had everyone telling us we weren’t going to have a problem last year,” Dunford said. “In the sixth inning, we hadn’t scored a run and it kind of shocked us. Everyone said we were going to beat this team. When you have the mindset you’re already going to beat a team, you don’t know how to react. This year all we know is we’re facing good team after good team after good team. You have to score and score and just play your best throughout the whole game.”

This postseason, the Cougars have scored 42 runs and given up 14.

“We have the ability to score runs, but when you’re playing against good teams and good pitchers, you just can’t score at will,” Fontaine said. “When you put the ball in play and aren’t getting results, it’s nice that we’re not getting frustrated. We just keep clawing and mowing along until we finally put some runs on the board.”

In the Cougars’ 6-3 semifinal win over Mattawan on Thursday, they built a 4-0 lead after one inning and tacked on two more runs in the sixth after that lead was trimmed to one run.

“We settled down after they put those three runs up on us and adjusted a little bit and got a couple more runs in the sixth inning,” Fontaine said. “That’s just a testament of our ability to face adversity.”

Dakota, which ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the state by the coaches’ association, will meet Grandville in the title game today.

“It’s tough to have the bullseye on your back every game,” Fontaine said. “We’re getting everyone’s A-game all the time. We’ve been successful being that all year, but if you need a reason to get excited about the state championship game, then you’ve got problems.”

The Bulldogs, who beat Clarkston in a semifinal 2-1, were an honorable mention in the state rankings.

“We know they hit the ball pretty well,” Fontaine said. “They can swing the bat, and they have a good pitcher on the mound. They’re definitely a quality opponent and beat some good teams to get where they’re at.”

Dunford, who has signed with Florida International University, scattered seven hits with no walks and two strikeouts on 85 pitches in Thursday’s semifinal win.

“I feel very confident,” Dunford said. “I’m going to spin the ball and make sure my changeup is working. I feel we’re going to do very good (today).

“Getting the lead is huge,” Dunford added. “When you get up and score the first time, it's always a good thing. We like being the visitors now.”

In the tournament, the Cougars were visitors in each of their seventh-inning rallies as well as in Thursday’s semifinal. Last season they were the home team all the way up until the championship game.

Last Updated: 6/16/2017 7:04:08 PM EST