Building a winner: Heinonen, Bulldogs continue winning culture
HANCOCK — While the Hancock Bulldogs softball team won their fourth straight district title last Saturday with wins over Lake Linden-Hubbell and Gogebic, coach Randy Heinonen admits it was far from easy. At the same time, the fact that the Division 4 District 97 tournament contains schools similar in size and experience to Hancock says a lot about how the sport has grown and changed in recent years.
Beating the Lakes in the semifinal was no easy task, as pitcher Emily Jokela is a rising star in the game.
“This was the toughest one,” he said. “We earned this one. We really had to game plan and do some things, small ball, against Jokela. She throws hard. So, yeah, it was a (lot of) work.”
Heinonen started the Hancock program in 2013, back when only Houghton had a team locally. A year later, Calumet and Lake Linden joined the fray. Now that Jeffers and L’Anse have brought their respective programs back, there are six teams in a half-hour radius, and three more in the WestPAC from the Marquette area in Ishpeming, Westwood, and Negaunee.
Having more schools playing softball is a benefit to everyone, says Heinonen.
“Actually, the advantage is, my first year coaching, we played Norway in districts, and they’re pretty far from us,” he said. “There just weren’t enough teams. Now we might see them in the regional, but we get to play our more local teams, and, obviously, the ones out west. That’s because of the growth of the sport.”
While he has served a decade as the Bulldogs’ coach, Heinonen had to grow into the sport in the beginning.
“I’ve always been a baseball guy,” he said. “I loved watching and playing baseball, and slowpitch softball. But, my oldest daughter was eight years old, and we were looking for something for her to do in the summers, and we decided to try Little League softball. We signed her up, and that’s kind of the beginning of the end of everything. That’s how it started, and it’s been going ever since.”
With the graduation of his youngest daughter Ellie, Heinonen has had the pleasure of getting to coach all three of his girls through their high school careers. He feels the time spent together has been invaluable for him and his girls.
“It’s not always easy,” he said.”It certainly has been a blessing for us. It’s been an opportunity for us to spend time together as a family, and been a chance for me to teach the game to them.
“It’s been an absolute blessing for us, for sure.
The consistent success the Bulldogs have enjoyed under Heinonen comes down to a simple, yet very important factor, fundamentals. Without fundamentals, so much can go wrong on the softball field.
“I think, to be fair, because softball is relatively young in this area, that it needs to be worked on,” he said. “I finally realized that after a couple of years at high school practices that we were not taking the extra base, we were not hitting the right cut off. We’re not doing these things.”
That realization led to a change in Heinonen’s focus.
“I just switched my coaching philosophy to drill that into them every day to the point where the kids are bored with it,” he said. “But, until they get perfected, we’ll keep working on it.”
Heinonen knows, at the end of the day, it does not matter how much of an emphasis he puts on the little things, if his players are not willing to do the work, they would not improve.
“I could be sparky Anderson out there, but if the girls don’t want to do it, and don’t want to put the time in, then it’s all for not,” he said. So, winning’s fun, winning is contagious, and the districts are important to us, because we get slotted then with the same size schools. I think we’ve been very competitive.”
IMPACT OF TRAVEL SOFTBALL
Heinonen also admits that, in the last few years, he has had to worry less about those things, thanks to the growth of the travel softball teams like the Copper Country Crush, or its predecessor, the Chill.
“The other part with that is that these girls now, most of these high school girls, have played travel ball, and have played since they were eight years old,” he said. “That’s been a huge thing for our high school programs. Our travel program has really bolstered the talent at the high school level. That’s why you see Hancock, Calumet, and others, are competitive with other schools around the U P.
“The work that the travel ball group has done has just made the high school coaches’ jobs easier.”
The creation of travel softball teams grew out of the local hockey model, according to Heinonen. To help foster faster skill development, local coaches got together and worked out a way to field teams as young as eight years old, in the hopes that once those girls got to the varsity level, they would be ready to compete with schools like Escanaba and Gladstone.
The results in the past couple of years have been extremely rewarding for everyone involved.
“We just felt it was necessary,” Heinonen said, “and I think now all these years later, we’re finally seeing the fruits of our labors.”
While the Bulldogs have put together a very strong pitching staff with starter Sadie Biekkola and Syndie Scholie, a player that Heinonen is especially proud of in the field this season has been Ella Storm. He admits that he was not sure where to slot her in the lineup and where to place her on the field when she joined the varsity squad, but she has made a home for herself in center field.
“Ella Storm has turned into an awesome ballplayer,” he said. “I mean, we weren’t really sure what we were going to do with Ella, where we were gonna play her. I asked her if she would try the outfield, and she did and took to it. I think she’s one of the best defensive center fielders in the WestPAC. She plays small ball for us. She can lay a bunt down and steal. Ella has really been a pleasant surprise for us, really taken a huge step for us.”
Heinonen has been impressed with how coachable Storm is.
“She’s pretty much played outfield, but she’ll do whatever we ask of her,” he said. “You know, that’s most all of our kids. They just want to play. I’ve never had a kid tell me, ‘No, I don’t want to play there.’ So, as long as you are having fun and we’re doing the right things, I think they’ll play for you. So, that’s what she’s done for us. She just said, ‘OK, I’ll try this. I’ll do this,’ and she’s just excelled at it.”
WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING CONFIDENT?
Heinonen and his staff, which includes Craig Biekkola, Gary Scholie and Hannah Asiala, have all worked well together to help build up the Bulldogs’ players. The Bulldogs play with a confidence in the field that helps carry them through the successes they have during each season.
“Confidence is exactly the word, because you can see it even inning by inning, day by day, game by game, going up and down,” he said. “If you can sustain that, it really helps, just believing you can do it.
“We didn’t hit a ton of home runs in my early years, and then we hit a couple. Then you start believing this girl can hit some, and then you start popping them out. It’s just a belief in yourself, and the belief that you can play the game. That’s definitely helped us grow over the years.”
With that confidence from the players, Heinonen and his staff can challenge their players with other options during games.
“It helps us as coaches, too, because we can throw more things at the girls,” he said. “We can have more offensive plays, be a little more technical in our defensive cutoffs, those kinds of things, and know that they’ll understand it.
FACING ISHPEMING AGAIN
Heinonen is excited to see what his team can do this weekend after the way they played in the district tournament against the Lakes and the Miners. They will open Saturday’s play with Ishpeming, a team the Bulldogs swept at home earlier this year, 5-1 and 10-0.
“We feel really good,” he said. “I mean, the way we played in the district, we played one of our best games in a couple of years against Lake Linden, just by the kids understanding what we needed to do then, even physically, not making the physical mistakes, not making the mental mistakes. So, I’m feeling really good about it. It’s a coin flip game against Ishpeming. They’re a good team. We’ve gone back and forth with them over the last couple of years.”
Having a matchup against the Hematites, a team that has beaten them in the past in tournament play, is exactly what Heinonen wants.
“We swept them this year, beat them in the regular season last year, but before that, they beat us in the district, and they beat us in the regular season,” he said. “I respect their team, and their talent. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I can’t wait.”