New to the district diamond

HOUGHTON – Hard to believe it considering the first locally played games were four weeks ago today, but the diamond calendar has turned to the postseason.

Four of the six local prep softball teams will be entering MHSAA District play for the first time.

All but one of them debut tonight, and all but one of them debut far from the Copper Country.

The exception to both rules is Calumet, which will play its Division 3 quarterfinal game Wednesday afternoon at the Gipp Recreation Area in Laurium against Manistique.

All MHSAA tournaments are single elimination.

One of the first two co-champions of the Copper Country Conference in softball, the Copper Kings and Emeralds already met this season at the Spring Swing Tournament in the Superior Dome. Calumet won that one 5-2, but even if the first meeting hadn’t been indoors on a carpet, the Copper Kings wouldn’t be using that result as a platform for overconfidence.

“We know we beat them at the Dome. Of course, they’re a solid team and we can’t take them for granted, but it makes the girls know they have some confidence that it’s a winnable game,” co-coach Joel Rastello said after last Wednesday’s conference-clinching split with Houghton.

“Coming back and beating a good Houghton team gives us some momentum.”

This Division 3 district has a ‘non-traditional’ format, which means the four quarterfinals will be at different sites, but that didn’t help Houghton, which drew the host Gladstone Braves.

“They’re going to be a step up from Calumet. We’ve got to have zero errors and we’ve got to be hitting the ball. We’ve got to not hold our heads down, we’ve got to learn from this, too,” Houghton coach Melissa Grego said after Wednesday’s games.

Houghton’s program has much more familiarity with the postseason than its Copper Country peers, having been in existence since 2008. However, Gladstone has won 11 consecutive district and regional titles and has been a legitimate force in the sport statewide: before a quarterfinal loss last season, the Braves had reached the state semifinals in Battle Creek (now in East Lansing for the first time this year) five times in a row and have Division 3 state titles from 2004 and 2009.

The semifinals and finals of the tournament will be in Gladstone Friday afternoon. The Houghton-Gladstone winner will play Westwood or Negaunee, while the Calumet-Manistique winner will face Gwinn or Iron Mountain. The championship game is scheduled for 4 p.m.

The MHSAA structures its softball (and baseball) tournaments through ‘nearly-equal divisions’ of the participating schools instead of the traditional classes A, B, C and D. That’s how Class B Houghton and Class C Calumet are in Division 3 and the rest of the Copper Country’s programs (including Class C Hancock and L’Anse) are in Division 4.

The Division 4 district also starts today and is entirely in Ironwood. Each of the four Copper Country teams will form part of a quarterfinal quadrupleheader, starting with Jeffers, which goes up against the host Red Devils.

Ironwood got to last year’s district final before taking a thumping from another Southern U.P. perennial powerhouse, Rapid River. The Rockets were shipped east this year to the other U.P.-based district in Pickford.

In game two, Hancock faces Ishpeming. Hancock has one game of postseason experience, a heavy defeat to Ironwood in last year’s first round. The Bulldogs will face Ishpeming in the second quarterfinal.

“We’re competing with every team that we’re playing with now. I think the girls’ heads are a lot higher and I think they see that. I think they see the big difference. I think we’ve made a turn in the season and I think we’re peaking at the right time in the playoffs,” Meyer said after playing Houghton last week.

Ishpeming had a .500 season in the Mid-Peninsula Conference but was able to knock off Norway in the first game of a doubleheader late last week, which handed the conference crown to Negaunee.

The runner-up Knights drew Lake Linden-Hubbell in the third quarterfinal, while the fourth will pit L’Anse and Stephenson.

The semifinals are Friday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. with the championship to follow at around 3.

On the bigger diamond, Houghton has until Friday to prepare for its first bid at the district tournament Friday at the Gladstone Sports Park.

Houghton has seen all three potential opponents in the four-team bracket this season.

The Gremlins were drawn into a 4 p.m. semifinal Friday against a Superior Central team they beat soundly (11-0 and 19-6) early in the season in Alger County.

The other half of the draw could be trickier, as Houghton lost twice to the Braves in Gladstone last week. The hosts will face Negaunee in the early semifinal. The Miners beat Houghton in nine innings in the first game of a doubleheader last week. Game two was called due to darkness with the game tied.

The championship game of that tournament is Friday at 7 p.m.