FARMINGTON — As a lifelong pitcher who sported an ERA south of 0.50 in high school, Kayce Nieto was never a big proponent of the concept of people “going home.”
And yet, here she is in her mid-20s, back where she started, bumming around the Farmington Hills Mercy softball fields, helping out her old program as an assistant coach, loving every minute she spends at home.
“It’s so much fun. I love being back at Mercy. It’s a fantastic place, good kids, good families. And I get to coach my little sister, which is cool,” the former Marlins ace pitcher said.
Nine years separate Kayce from her sister Grace, a sophomore who plays shortstop for the Marlins now. When Kayce was in high school — and even relatively regularly when she went on to college at Utah — Grace was always at the field.
“Every single game. That kid grew up at a softball field. I don’t think she ever even thought she had a choice,” Kayce Nieto said with a laugh. “When I was at Utah, she’d be in the dugout every game, so she got to watch Arizona, UCLA and Oregon from the time she was nine years old.”
An all-state pitcher for the Marlins from 2009-2012, the elder Nieto became the one of the first Michigan natives to play in the Pac-10. Her claim to fame was the 41-strikeout performance in the 2010 Catholic League championship game, a 22-inning affair that stretched over two days.
She earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention and Pac-10 all-freshman honors her first year at Utah, then — after appearing in 40 games over her first two seasons — saw action in just 18 over her final two seasons. She finished with 19-19 record (2 saves), a 4.75 ERA in 247.2 innings and 99 strikeouts.
After college, she spent a year in Indiana, coaching at Westfield High School.
But there was always the pull of home.
“I coached my sister, and Maggie Murphy, and Emma Dompierre — I’ve coached them for two or three years in summer ball. I took a year off, and was in Indiana for a year, and coached a team there,” Nieto said. “I helped out a little bit last year, when Grace was a freshman. But that was my first year of law school, so I couldn’t be here all the time. I couldn’t do both. This year, I’ve got my feet underneath me a little bit more, and I kind of know what’s going on a little more. I’ve got a super busy schedule, but I’ve still got it fit in. I think I’ve figured it out. We decided a couple of weeks before the season. I knew I was going to be around, I just didn’t know how much.”
She’s an assistant to head coach Jerry Ashe, who has been at the helm of the program for the past two years, after more than two decades as an assistant. He originally joined the program under Jack Falvo — the coach who put the put the program on the map with four straight trips to the final four (2000-03) — in the 1990s, and has helped out the succession of coaches since Falvo stepped down after the 2009 season.
At Mercy’s early-season invitational tournament — now the Jack Falvo Memorial Tournament — last weekend, the Marlins went 3-1 to finish third behind Walled Lake Northern and Northville.
Mercy’s only loss came against Northville, a 12-6 setback, after wins over Livonia Stevenson (9-5) and Fowlerville (15-6). The Marlins rebounded with a three-inning, 22-3 mercy-rule win over Carleton Airport in the third-place game.
“You know what? There’s been a lot of good moments. We’ve had a little bit of a struggle. Our big thing is we need to connect our offense and our defense. We’ll have games where our offense is stellar, so we’ll score 10 but give up 11. Then there’s games where we don’t give up any, or we give up one, and we can’t push any across,” Kayce Nieto said. “When we connect it, like that game (vs. Airport), it’s great. But it’s a maturity thing, too. There’s a lot of youth in the lineup. Our infield is basically all (young). Our middles are sophomores, our third baseman’s a junior, she’s a junior, and we have a junior behind the plate. There’s a lot of youth, but there’s good glimpses, too.”
Ashe is the seventh head coach since Falvo stepped down after Nieto’s freshman season. Fred Marrinuchihad the team the next two seasons, then athletic director Nancy Malinowski shared the job with Eddie Ketelhut for a season — Nieto’s senior year — before taking over herself for a season. Sara McGavin held the post for a season (2013) before turning it over to her father, Alec Lesko, who guided the Marlins to their first state title in 2016, then stepped down himself a year later.
Now that she’s home, could Nieto see herself sticking around for a while?
“I’d like to. I like coaching my sister. There’s a lot of good kids,” she said. “Maggie, I played with her sister Jacqueline and Molly. I’ve known Maggie since she was probably 2 years old, so she’s like a second little sister. And I’d love to watch them come through all the way, but we’ll see.”