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Undiscovered Champs

The Camden-Frontier softball team practices earlier this month — with only 11 girls and a barn in the background.

The Camden-Frontier softball team practices earlier this month — with only 11 girls and a barn in the background.

Sorry about absolutely NO posts as of late, but 12-14 hour days at the sports desk and tournaments, championship meets and the conclusion of the regular season is wearing me out, and I don’t need to get carpal tunnel from blogging!

Anyways, one quick note, then a full-length feature to indulge yourself in if you’ve got a little time and consider yourself a Hillsdale County high school sports fan.

First, the note: The last four days is precisely why I’ve always liked the NBA way more than college basketball. The personalities are bigger, the stakes are higher and as LBJ proved last night, the players are exponentially more talented. Hands in the face are no matter, time is no object and sorry to plug it, in a very non-journalistic fashion, but the NBA IS “Where Amazing Happens…”. Wow.

Anyways, onto the local stuff. This feature took several weeks, many phone calls, and me attending a C-F softball practice and I hope it provides a worthwhile glimpse of what it’s like trying to build a successful program at a Class D school with a whole lot of variables involved. Enjoy.

Undiscovered Champs

An inside look at the success of the Camden-Frontier girls’ athletic program, what it tries to stand for and what types of challenges stand in its way.

Gale-force winds rip through the country side, where cows and horses outnumber cars and houses.

A hint of manure melds with the smell of fresh grass with the wide blue yonder as the backdrop.

An out-of-place Powerade ad takes up space on an already tiny scoreboard not far from a gaggle of evergreens that ever so slightly blocks the view of your run-of-the-mill red barn.

This is where 11 girls practice in anonymity this May, hoping to stay healthy so their championship hopes don’t hit the injured reserve.

This is the softball diamond for a team that holds no tryouts and has no room for errors, yet expects to uphold its lofty definitions of success.

This is the venue Dawn Follis and Melissa Warfield have turned into a beacon for getting the most out of young girls, all skill levels, as long as they possess strong hearts and commendable work ethics.

Sometimes it seems like no one cares, especially college scouts and on occasion even their own fans — but if they cared what everyone else thought, they may never have built programs with such strong winning traditions in the first place.

A winning tradition that includes five straight SCAA volleyball titles from 2003-07, six district championships in girls hoops since the turn of the century and district titles in softball in 2003 and 2008.

Being a bit off the beaten path, and one of 11 high schools in the county, it is relatively easy to remain anonymous though.

If only people understood what takes place at 4971 West Montgomery Rd.

Players come and go, so sometimes the face of a high school program is its unchanging leader.

Follis is fiery, but gentle, all at once, urging her volleyball teams to conference championships each fall, but once basketball rolls around in November the Redskin girls are all Warfield’s, until the end of June.

For the last 16 seasons she has called the shots for C-F basketball, and in 2001 she took over as the varsity softball coach.

Coaching was never part of Warfield’s plan, until a school board member gave her the heads up on the JV basketball job opening in 1994. Now Warfield can’t imagine life without it.

Head coach Melissa Warfield does it all at C-F, including trying to catch flyballs with a bucket.

Head coach Melissa Warfield does it all at C-F, including trying to catch flyballs with a bucket.

She pitches to her girls in batting practice, runs around the outfield shagging fly-balls, and tries to interweave solid principles with explanatory demonstrations. In her mind not much has changed over the years, other than her body is starting to feel the wear-and-tear and she likes to think she’s learned a trick or two.

Warfield said she gleans philosophical ideas from books written by historically successful coaches like Pat Summit, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski, but ultimately she feels like she’s done her job if she is instilling valuable life principles.

“I want them to look nice when they enter the field, I want them to be proud of themselves; and also, please pick up after yourself — they are just things that have always been instilled to me by all of my coaches and that’s something I really value and I hope I can teach them sportsmanship, where if you knock somebody over you help them up,” she said.

Warfield will be the first to tell you that losing doesn’t sit well with her though. In fact she was still replaying softball losses to Pittsford and Waldron in her mind a week after they happened.

“We shouldn’t have lost those. And I’m not saying we’re a better team than anyone, it’s just that with the situations that were there we shouldn’t have lost,” she said. “Give me (those games) back right now, no notice to my girls whatsoever, I would do so many things different.”

Warfield is old-school, in that she holds every player accountable and she has no problem making her girls do things over and over, until they finally get it right.

She was a member of a Pittsford High School basketball team that went 25-2 and was ranked No. 2 in the state under John Ireland, and she said they would stay in the gym until 7 p.m. if that’s what it took, and she’s the same way, although she knows some parents may shake their head at that.

Athletic director Brad Bohner said both Follis and Warfield are “good solid people” who have mastered what he considers an art form and he does get complaints once in a while, but their winning reputations usually speak for themselves.

“They do it right, they win, they demand excellence from the kids in the classroom and on the sporting field — what more do you want?” Bohner said.

Most importantly though, the girls are buying into what Warfield is selling.

“She makes us work hard, she doesn’t cut us any slack, but I guess that’s a good thing, because obviously it’s working,” senior softball captain Kara Bryner said.

Bryner, and Warfield’s daughter, sophomore star Morgan, both said they appreciate how Melissa is committed to open-gym sessions in the summer and puts her whole heart into coaching.

They also enjoy sharing laughs with her, and given the chance they’re more than willing to have a good giggle at her expense.

“It’s so funny watching her at third base during games. Whenever we hit she squats and squeezes her (butt) together,” Bryner said.

That’s not all though.

“And she also really likes to say ‘Duuude!’ in a really deep voice and it’s always when she’s standing by third base when we swing at a high pitch or something like that,” Morgan Warfield said.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD There are some clear advantages and disadvantages to trying to build a winning program at a high school of roughly 160 students.

In fact some advantages are also disadvantages and vice versa.

For example, everybody loves the family-like atmosphere that is embraced by teams that rarely have more than a couple of reserve players and a program that doesn’t even have a JV softball team.

Sophomore sensation Megan Schwartzengraber said “they are a family, and she thinks her teammates are absolutely hilarious”, while Bryner has a unique approach to leadership that she thinks works best considering how much time the girls spend together.

The girls are basically a family unit at Camden-Frontier, doing everything together, especially practicing hard every day.

The girls are basically a family unit at Camden-Frontier, doing everything together, especially practicing hard every day.

“(When things go wrong) I think I just yell something at them that doesn’t make any sense, to try and make them feel better. We laugh a lot….maybe that’s the best medication,” she said.

Bohner also said the low number of athletes means that his coaches know the girl’s strengths and weaknesses to a tee.

That intimate environment comes at an expense though. Where there are few athletes, there are even fewer naturally skilled players.

Melissa Warfield said Camden-Frontier’s junior class has a total of three female athletes, and there’s not a darn thing she can do about it.

“That’s really a disadvantage. There are kids that are some of the hardest workers and have the most heart in the world and really just don’t have natural ability in athletics.

And at a school like this, you find a lot of those kids,” she said. “You don’t find many kids that put the time in year-round like you do at the big schools, you know. They have the access, like in Kalamazoo or whatever, you can go to how many fitness centers there…and we’re such a small community, and the only fitness facility I know of for the kids is (Hillsdale) College.”

If there is one element that is more difficult to deal with than all the rest while trying to build a thriving athletics program at a Class D institution though, it has to be the pressure that comes with it.

Just as the entire community celebrates wins over conference rivals, they also know exactly who to blame when things don’t turn out as expected.

The C-F girls know they are good, and aren’t afraid to say so, but they also take on the stress of carrying an entire fan base.

“Yeah sure, we know people expect us to win. That’s just one reason why a lot of us play while we’re hurting throughout the season,” Bryner said with a chuckle.

Schwartzengraber agreed, saying her body goes through multiple stages of soreness throughout the year, especially during the winter months, but she tries to ignore the pain and pressure.

“I don’t want to say I ignore (the pressure), but I try and just shake it off and focus on what I’m doing,” she said.

Bryner said she rarely watches TV and Warfield and Schwartzengraber just laugh at the thought of having so-called “normal teenage lives”.

And as the pressure to win is thrust upon the girls, it also creates pressure on the AD, from parents who think their kids should be playing more.

“At this kind of school sometimes there is such a gap in ability, and again, it’s not that these kids aren’t great kids, but they may not be the best volleyball player in the world or the best softball or basketball player in the world,” Bohner said. “One of the things that unfortunately is a reality once you get to the varsity level of is sports is it’s about winning, it’s not about making people happy with playing time.”

While making parents happy is a never-ending battle regardless of school size or winning percentages, the C-F girls are currently part of a clash of psyches that proves egos are no stranger to high school sports.

While Warfield and Follis continue to cultivate winners, the boys’ athletic teams are just finally starting to find their way after several decades of being down. Aside from winning the track and field state championship in 2002, the Redskins last district title in boys basketball was 1999, and you have to go back to 1987 to find the last district champion baseball team.

On top of that, the C-F football team has had just 10 winning seasons since 1979 and has won exactly zero playoff games since the MHSAA moved to its current format.

Things are looking up in some respects, evident by the baseball team’s resurgent 16-10 mark this season — but the boys’ self-worth is still shaky at best, apparent by their lack of support for their female counterparts.

Coach Warfield and Bohner both say they are disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm and love the boys show, considering how the girls back the boy’s programs, and the players themselves are of the same opinion.

Some CHS boys think the only reason these girls can hit so good is because the pitchers just aren't all that good. As you can imagine, the girls tend to disagree.

Some CHS boys think the only reason these girls can hit so good is because the pitchers just aren't all that good. As you can imagine, the girls tend to disagree.

“We get support from our community, but not really from the school and classmates,” Bryner said. “(The guys) just tell us (we’re successful) because we don’t have as good of competition.”

Schwartzengraber scoffs at that notion and said they counter that opinion by “probably telling them that (the girls) are better once or twice a day.”

Morgan Warfield tries to downplay the lack of respect from the opposite sex, and even said she’s glad they’re doing well in baseball, but she did add “that some more support would be nice.”

One person who has had enough of the cavalier attitudes from the males though is Bohner. He said he let the boys know just how he felt at the 2008 fall banquet, when he presented the girls with the SCAA All Sports Trophy, for having the most successful program in the league over the course of the previous year.

“I’m retiring this year and I’ve become pretty blunt….and usually I don’t do things like this. I held that trophy up and congratulated the girls and I looked over at the boys and I said, ‘Now it’s time for you guys to stop whining and complaining and go win one of your own.’ You tell the girls that it’s different and it isn’t.”

Bohner said he has brought guys into his office and told them he is sick of it and he’s also had plenty of girls stop by, to ask how they should respond to it all. His answer? Continue to show class and civility.

“I tell them they have several choices; they can not go, but is that the kind of person you want to represent yourself to be? Heady, angry and vindictive?” he said. “Because that’s one thing I’ve always respected about the girls’ program, is they do things the right way.”

Melissa Warfield said the kids are competitive and sometimes their emotions come unmasked, but there’s not a whole lot she can do to change that.

“I’m sure (our winning a lot) is part of it and that’s one of the disadvantages of being at small school. You have that competition between the two and sometimes it’s not a very nice thing,” she said. “Like in basketball, the boys would say ‘We’ll kick your butt, we’ll come into practice and beat you’ and when we would come up to an open-gym on Sundays and the girls would come in and the boys would come in, my girls killed those boys. Not when they’re going size-to-size, because then they would kill us inside all day long, but just to play, we ran them up and down the floor like it was nothing.”

In the meantime, Warfield’s softball team is 19-5 and trying to finish off an SCAA D II regular season title.

Last year the Redskins won districts before falling 5-2 to a surprise Homer squad in the first round of regional play. The Trojans were the eventual state runner-up, somewhat justifying the loss, but the girls want more this season and Morgan Warfield said she’d “like to see (Homer) again this year, beat them and win regionals.”IMG_6192

With two shutdown pitchers like Warfield and Schwartzengraber the opportunity is there, but their erratic hitting attack will have to hit its stride to continue advancing.

As for the foreseeable future, Melissa has her eyes set on a prize much greater than a regional championship trophy — a state title in girls basketball.

Her daughter has already visited several Division I basketball programs and spends her weekends playing AAU ball and summers at elite camps sponsored by the likes of Nike and other big names, so needless to say, the star-power is there. Plus her sophomore class has quite a few key pieces and she loves the promise they’ve shown.

“I think there are girls who have the potential to be something they have no idea what it is right now, but I definitely have an idea,” she said.

Schwartzengraber is more of a softball player at heart and has her sights set on playing the game in college, preferably at a large university, but realistically “wherever she can play a lot” and Bryner is about to put sports in the rear-view mirror to focus on studies, likely in a healthcare related field.

The thing about programs like Camden-Frontier is they offer teenagers a chance to truly understand success and failure first-hand if they are willing to work hard.

It is unknown how long Warfield will continue to coach, as her top priority will be attending Morgan’s college contests in a few short years, and only time will tell if the Redskins can somehow maintain their winning tradition through the highs and lows involved in Class D athletics.

What is certain though, is no matter who is watching, what the competition is like and how much respect they get — as long as Follis and Warfield are running the shows there will be nothing less than unsurpassable effort — with horse stables and the wide blue yonder in the distance.


About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.


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