Adversity, grit, and persistence: Nemitz’s road to a childhood dream

Tuesday, May 14, 2019 - 7:37pm

Senior designated player Mackenzie Nemitz dealt with plenty of adversity throughout her Michigan career.

Senior designated player Mackenzie Nemitz dealt with plenty of adversity throughout her Michigan career. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

As Mackenzie Nemitz watched her team from the dugout, there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that Michigan would win. She just didn’t think the responsibility would fall on her shoulders.

Her team was down by one with two outs in the bottom of the seventh against Indiana on April 7. With a runner in scoring position, it looked like the game would come down to the next batter — senior first baseman Alex Sobczak.

But that wasn’t in the cards. Seeing the power hitter as too large of a threat, the Hoosiers intentionally walked Sobczak. They wanted to face Nemitz instead.

The senior designated player walked up to the plate with her teammates yelling from the dugout behind her and her walk-up song — Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody — blaring from the speakers. Standing just outside the batter’s box, Nemitz could hear the roar coming from the stands but she focused on the voice coming from first base.

“You get it done, Kenzie,” Sobczak said. “You get it done.”

Nemitz took a deep breath, training her eyes on the small circle in the middle of her bat’s DeMarini logo. She looked up to see Michigan coach Carol Hutchins cheering her on from the third baseline. Dialed in, Nemitz stepped into the batter’s box and waited for the first pitch.

Ball.

She knew the right-hander Emily Goodin wasn’t going to walk her; she’d get something worth hitting. On the second pitch, Nemitz swung, sending the ball bouncing outside the baseline.

Foul.

And again.

Foul.

She waited as two more balls flew past her outside of the strike zone.

In the next pitch, with a full count, she could either extend the game or end it.

While the pressure visibly mounted in Alumni Field, the same couldn’t be said inside the Wolverines’ dugout, where the rest of the team was lighthearted — dancing and yelling.

Despite the commotion surrounding her from all sides, there was only one thing running through Nemitz’s mind.

You’re going to do this. You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna do it. No doubt in your mind. You’re gonna do it.

***

In the spring of 2005, a nine-year old Nemitz sat in her St. Clair Shores living room, watching the Women’s College World Series with her older sister, Nikki. Michigan was facing UCLA and the game was tied in the 10th inning. As she watched Samantha Finley hit the game-winning home run for the Wolverines, Nemitz made a decision. Already an avid Michigan fan and an even more avid softball player, she would do whatever it took to get to that level, wearing maize and blue.

I want to hit that home run.  

As the youngest of three siblings, Mackenzie was always tagging along to Nikki’s games, and as soon as she was old enough to pick up a bat at age four, she began following in her sister’s footsteps. She’d play in the dirt while Nikki — an All-State high school pitcher — warmed up. Their dad, Mark Nemitz, who doubled as both of their coaches, would work tirelessly with Mackenzie, who wanted to be just as good as her sister.

Collegiate programs started looking at Nikki, and Mackenzie wasn’t shy about voicing her opinion — she wanted Nikki to be a Wolverine.  

Michigan assistant coach Bonnie Tholl still remembers the day almost 15 years ago when an eight-year-old Mackenzie struck up a conversation with her in the concessions line of a high school softball tournament.

“She made sure that I knew that her sister was the one out there pitching,” Tholl said. “Of course, I knew who Nikki was because I was there to recruit her. Mackenzie was full of life.”

When Nikki was on an official visit to Michigan and deciding whether or not to take its offer, Mackenzie was invited to the decision table. While the highly-ranked pitcher still had her reservations, Mackenzie was sold.

“She committed to us before Nikki did,” Hutchins joked. “I said, ‘You’re going to come to Michigan, right?’ And she said yes, so she committed before Nikki.”

Mackenzie kept pushing her sister towards Ann Arbor until she got her wish. Nikki committed about a month later.   

As Nikki became a facet of Michigan’s starting rotation, you could count on Mackenzie to be somewhere in the stands — or at least in the dirt nearby, practicing in the shadow of Alumni Field. Nemitz kept working, anchored by the desire to be playing on the other side of the wall.

At away games, other coaches would try to “recruit” the young player, to which Mackenzie only had one response.

“Nope,” Nemitz said time and time again. “I’m going to Michigan.”

She liked to be in the middle of everything, whether that meant serving as the bat girl or sitting in the locker room, listening in on Hutchins’ pregame speech to the players.

“Every year, the team went to Louisville over my birthday weekend,” Nemitz said. “My parents and I would drive down there and then (Hutchins) would let me go on the bus to every game. I was like, ‘I love this. This is so cool.’”

Years later, when Nemitz had her own recruiting decisions to make, she had her pick of schools. As a two-time All-State player, she got offers for full rides, but not from Michigan. Still, she wanted to be a part of team she’d grown up on. Even without a scholarship, she couldn’t reject the offer to play for the Wolverines.  

About a year before Nemitz got to Ann Arbor, Tholl texted her to say Nikki’s old number, 44, was on hold. Nemitz adopted her sister’s number when she first started playing and has held on to it all the way through her career at Michigan.

During the first week of practice, Hutchins jokingly gave her a hard time for a prediction eight-year-old Nemitz had made: that she would commit to Tholl, because Hutchins would be retired by the time it was her turn to play.

“I gave her an evil eye like, ‘I’m still here!’” Hutchins said.

While Nikki — who went on to be a three time All-American — was integral to the Wolverines’ lineup from the start, Nemitz didn’t see the field much in her debut season. As a freshman, when just 20 players could travel with the team, Nemitz was often left at home. She appeared once that spring, as a pinch hitter.

“Freshman year kind of sucked,” Nemitz said, “because you go through everything with your team — you go through the conditioning tests, all these hard workouts everyday at practice — just to not be able to travel.”

Not only did she struggle to find her role on the team, Nemitz also had to learn to balance her personal and professional relationships with Nikki, who was working as an assistant coach for Michigan at the time.

Nemitz stayed positive when she wasn’t traveling, but sitting on the bench wasn’t what she imagined when she pictured her Michigan career as a little girl.

You always get excited and butterflies for the kids who haven’t had the easiest route,” Nikki said. “We’ve had tons of them throughout the years — they come in and think they’re going to do XYZ and life has a LMNOP avenue. (Mackenzie’s) definitely been one of them.”

When her sophomore year began, her route didn’t get any easier.

Nemitz spent all summer working and getting faster, just to face an even larger hurdle months later. During a ground ball drill in the second week of fall practice, Nemitz tore her ACL, ending her season before it even began.

Afterwards, Nemitz began to fall behind the rest of her teammates.

“Any player who’s ever gone through a devastating injury like that knows there’s two choices,” Hutchins said. “You’ve got to make it make you better. I’ve never had a kid go through that, where they’ve had some days where they’re just exhausted mentally and frustrated. I do believe kids who go through that — once they get past it — they’re better. They’re better mentally, period. They may or may not ever be as good physically, although they just have to work hard.”

When she had bad days, Nemitz considered switching gears and taking on a role off the field, like bullpen catcher or batting practice thrower.

Her pride and her passion for the team kept her going. As a little girl, she’d been determined to play on the other side of Alumni Field’s walls, and she wasn’t ready to give up.

She kept pushing herself and regaining her strength, working even harder than before. As her leg healed, she learned to come back a stronger competitor and teammate.

You’re going to do this. You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna do it. No doubt in your mind. You’re gonna do it.

Ironically, the injury that kept her off the field helped her find her place on the team. Nemitz found other ways to contribue, taking on a leadership role in the dugout and at practice.  

“She’s had to work a little bit harder to make herself the center — the nucleus — of the team,” Tholl said. “I think the team has fed off of that because they realize her passion.”

Through her junior year, as she continued to recover, Nemitz got a few more at-bats under her belt as a pinch hitter.

“You can either embrace the role (of pinch hitter) — with the opportunity you get, you can make the most of it — or you can be like, ‘You aren’t giving me at-bats,’” Nemitz said. “I’ve tried to make the most of every opportunity.”

Hutchins coached with “tough love,” according to Nemitz, always holding her to a high standard despite the adversity she faced. Between that and Nemitz’s internal drive, she was able to catch back up physically to the rest of the team.

Still, on-field opportunities were few and far between. Going into this season, Nemitz had just seven plate appearances over her three years.

“You have a tough first three years — not just first year — you can put your head down, you can quit, you can do a lot of things, or you can stick with it,” Hutchins said. “People who stick with it — it still doesn’t necessarily go the way you want it to go — but that’s the only chance of it ever going your way. She has stuck with it.”

You’re going to do this. You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna do it. No doubt in your mind. You’re gonna do it.

After waiting in the wings for three years, the perseverance paid off.

With each opportunity this season, Nemitz has advanced the Wolverines — a team that faced uncharacteristic struggles early in the season. Michigan fell from the rankings for the first time in 21 years. Then everything turned on a dime. The Wolverines found their footing, eventually being crowned the Big Ten regular season and tournament champions — a prospect that seemed inconceivable at the start of the season.

In many ways, Nemitz has embodied this trajectory.

In the beginning of the season, Hutchins played with the batting order, looking for some way to right the ship. Nemitz bounced between third base and designated player — sometimes not making the lineup at all. She started in 44 of the season’s 54 games and with every start, she’s gotten more consistent. Nemitz was one for her first five at-bats, but she improved with each passing month.

In February, she hit her first double — not to mention playing in the infield for the first time. In March, she launched her first home run and took command of the designated player role. In April, she smacked her first triple.

By the time conference play rolled around, Nemitz helped Michigan tear through the Big Ten with homers against Illinois, Michigan State and Nebraska.

In the middle of the lineup, Nemitz poses a threat to any pitcher. Her impact offensively has been unquestionable with five home runs and 29 RBI in over 100 at-bats.

Meanwhile, her intangible contributions may have been equally important.  

The Wolverines were tied with Illinois in the tournament quarterfinal, the game still scoreless in the bottom of the tenth inning. As freshman outfielder Lexie Blair got ready to bat, Nemitz pulled her aside to deliver some advice.

“Just be you.”

Whether the advice had an impact or not, Blair stepped up to the plate and hit a home run, advancing Michigan to the semifinals.   

Despite Nemitz’s overall success, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for the senior this year. Her batting average has fluctuated anywhere from .240 to .333. Hutchins has opted to pinch hit for her as recently as last month’s series against Illinois.

But true to herself, Nemitz has kept her head down and kept working.

You’re going to do this. You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna do it. No doubt in your mind. You’re gonna do it.

“Kids can get upset about (being pinch hit for),” Hutchins said. “They can worry about things they don’t need to worry about. Don’t worry about that. Just get your next chance. (Nemitz’s) attitude’s been fantastic. It’s earned her a starting job.”

That attitude has come from her ability to see each at-bat as an opportunity to succeed.

“She has taken some really good hits at balls as the underdog — as somebody who has not seen the field much in her first three years,” Tholl said. “The excitement her teammates had for her speaks volumes because they understand the hard work and the heart that she has put into the program. To see her celebrated like that sticks out to me as the type of teammate that she is.”

Quiet is the last word anyone would use to describe Nemitz, but she has served as a silent leader, known for her listening skills and always serving as a sounding board. Through her adverse experiences she’s been able to relate to younger players on many different levels, encouraging them when they get down or providing an attitude adjustment when they’re out of line.

"You don’t have to go through what I went through to understand where I’m coming from,” Nemitz said. “The freshmen went from being superstars on their travel teams to not even playing on this team, so I try to be there for them and give them insight. I tell them to keep working and go talk to the coaches — just giving them little tips that I didn’t take advantage of when I was in their shoes and just making their experience better.

“I think a lot of them look up to me because I haven’t had an easy path. I’ve had to know how to fight through adversity.”

***

You’re going to do this. You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna do it. No doubt in your mind. You’re gonna do it.

As Alumni Field waited with bated breath for Goodin to deliver the payoff pitch, Nikki was too nervous to watch her sister at the plate. Mackenzie had always seen every at-bat as an opportunity — an opportunity to help her team, to make an impact, to show how far her perseverance had taken her — and this one was no different.

Peering out through her fingers, Nikki saw the ball come down the line and saw Nemitz fire it deep into center field. She hit a member of the grounds crew out of excitement as she watched the ball bounce on the ground and saw her sister round the bases.

At first, Mackenzie didn’t realize what had happened. She didn’t know her hit had been a career-defining walk-off double until the team poured out of the dugout to where she was still stationed on second base.

Walking back to the dugout, Hutchins had one thing to say.

“Kenzie, your sister’s crying. Go give her a hug.”