INDIAN RIVER – In order to be a strong and successful program, having star players does help.
But so does having a solid supporting cast.
The Inland Lakes softball team has had both during its long period of winning titles on the diamond.
Perhaps no two players have embraced their supporting cast roles more than the senior twin duo of Caitlin and Caleigh Jones, who have helped fuel the Bulldogs during what’s been another terrific campaign.
“They’re very dedicated, hard-working young women going out into this world, so I’ve never doubted them from the get-go,” said Inland Lakes coach Krissi Thompson. “They’ve always been hard workers; a lot of these girls have. They know that this is a tough program to keep up in, so they know they have to work hard and bring their ‘A’ game.”
Born in Clinton, Ark., Caitlin and Caleigh’s softball days began when they participated in tee-ball when they were about five years old. After moving to Michigan many years later, the Jones’ spent their freshman year at Onaway High School, then transferred to Inland Lakes the following year.
Knowing what the Bulldog program had accomplished just a few years prior – a first-ever state championship in 2017 – Caitlin and Caleigh wanted in.
“We just knew that their program was super good, so we were just kind of like, ‘I want to be a part of that,’” said Caitlin. “We wanted to be a part of a bigger and better thing. I didn’t really know anybody, but I just knew that this team was good. We talked about moving over (to Indian River) so when it happened, I was excited.”
Once the two entered the program, they got right to work.
And, because they weren’t involved in any other high school sports, they quickly bonded with Thompson, who said both stood out right off the bat.
“Just their dedication,” Thompson said. “They were always at open gyms and ready to go and some of the first ones there all the time. They never really missed any softball at all. (Working with them in the offseason) very beneficial. I think it does everybody well to get going early. You always start out a little rusty, so the earlier you can get swinging, the better.”
Since then, Caitlin and Caleigh have developed into versatile and efficient players for the Bulldogs, who have already captured Ski Valley Conference and district titles this spring.
Most recently, in the biggest game of the season, Caitlin came up big by blasting a two-run homer to put Inland Lakes up 3-0 over Rogers City in the top of the seventh inning. The Bulldogs went on to upset the No. 6-ranked Hurons and win the district title in Rogers City, but the homer by Caitlin – the first of her career, in fact – proved to be the giant exclamation point in a statement win.
“It was exciting,” Caitlin said. “I just hadn’t gotten there yet. Rogers City’s always been a place where I’ve hit really well. I’ve hit the fence a couple times, but just never gotten one, and then I finally did, and I didn’t even expect it, really.”
As someone who’s witnessed several great moments from her players over the years, Caitlin’s homer was something Thompson will remember for a long time.
“It’s what you coach for,” Thompson said. “She’s been wanting a home run her entire career, and Coach Nate (Thompson) told her, ‘Just be patient. When it’s time, you’re going to hit one in the district final. It’s going to be your time,’ and sure enough, it happened, the whole crowd erupted, the team erupted, because they knew it was a huge milestone in her career.
“They were beyond excited for her.”
This Saturday, the twins will look to help the Bulldogs capture their first regional championship since 2017 when they travel up to Rudyard. As their careers wind down, Caitlin and Caleigh have certainly enjoyed playing softball together for what’s been about 12 years.
For both, it’s going to be tough to say goodbye when it’s all over.
“(Caleigh’s) like my best friend,” Caitlin said. “As much as you don’t really want to say your sister is your best friend, but she is. It’s been fun seeing us improve. I went from being a third baseman to an outfielder, and she went from being an outfielder to a first baseman, so there’s been a lot of change. It’s going to be sad when we’re done. This team has grown closer as we’ve played together. It’ll be sad to not go on the field again, but we’ve had a good run.”
“I’m going to miss it a lot,” said Caleigh. “I’ve been playing it for so long, and we have such a good team that it’s going to be really hard. The hardest part is not going to be playing with (Caitlin). We’ve always had really supportive coaches through the programs we’ve played in, and supportive teammates, so it kind of makes you want to keep playing.
“It’s been really nice, trying to make sure everybody stays as a family as we go through.”
For Thompson, she’ll miss both and the immense impact they had on the program.
“They’re fun, they’re outgoing, they’re supportive of their team – I’ll miss them dearly,” Thompson said. “They’re great hitters. They’ve really come around this season and made a statement for themselves. They’re some of the top (students) in their class as well.
“I had the luxury of playing with a set of twins when I was in school, and just to see the bond that they have on the field and communicating with each other, it’s pretty special. To get to coach it, it’s even more special.”
Inland Lakes faces Johannesburg-Lewiston in a 1 p.m. regional semifinal on Saturday. The winner meets the 11 a.m. Pellston-Rudyard winner in the final later in the afternoon.