Some key defensive plays early in their regional final rematch with Pemberville Eastwood at Findlay High School Saturday helped prevent the Cardington softball team from falling into an early hole. From there, the team’s power took over, propelling the Pirates to an 8-2 victory and second straight trip to the Division III Final Four at Akron Firestone Stadium Friday.
The team started off well against Eastwood, whom they defeated 4-0 at Findlay last year to make it to the state semifinals. Going against pitcher Ashley Hitchcock, who hadn’t surrendered any runs throughout her team’s playoff run, the Pirates immediately got a single by Brooklyn Whitt, who was sacrificed to second base by Kierson George.
Baylee Adams followed with a run-scoring double and she would be driven in by a two-out double by Rylie Partlow to stake the Pirates to an early 2-0 lead.
That advantage wouldn’t last long, though. Casey Bertke started off the bottom of the inning with some control issues, opening the game with two walks and a single to load the bases with no one out. She was able to induce a ground ball from Carleigh Coffield that scored a run, but got the first out of the inning; however, two more walks would bring in another run to tie the game.
Bertke would be able to get out of the frame with no more damage done, though, as a ground ball by Samantha Rost resulted in a double play.
“It was huge,” said Pirate coach Tod Brininger of that double play. “I don’t know that Casey was really struggling with her control, but she was with getting strikes called.”
“That was big — I was so nervous,” added Bertke. “After we got the double play and scored two more runs, I was okay. I was working on my rise ball and that’s all I threw in warm-ups and all my pitches were rising (at the start of the game).”
Bertke would record a perfect second inning and then played a big role in the team tallying a two-run third. Adams opened with a walk and was moved to second by Chelsey Miller. Partlow then reached base via walk and, with two outs, Bertke was able to crack a two-run double to put the Pirates back on top.
Eastwood would not be able to get back on the board. After opening their half of the third with back-to-back singles, they watched their inning quickly come to an end via another huge double play and a ground ball for the third out.
Cardington’s power then blew the game open in the top of the fourth. With two outs in the inning, George and Adams hit back-to-back solo home runs for the Pirates. Miller then drew a walk that led to another run scoring when Partlow smacked an RBI triple down the right field line, making the score 7-2.
“After Kierson hit one and I hit one, it was the best feeling ever,” stated Adams. “It’s a great feeling. Like Coach Tod says, you’ll be punched in the face and the first inning was that punch. Then we were good to go.”
“That team hadn’t given up a run in the tournament,” said Brininger. “I think we shell-shocked them a bit with our bats. That’s what those kids can do, but we can get better.”
Partlow noted that the team was able to figure out Hitchcock’s tendencies on the mound, which helped in generating offense.
“Her first pitch was down the middle every time, so I was telling everyone to watch that first pitch,” she said.
Bertke pitched a perfect fourth inning after that three-run outburst and only gave up three base-runners over the final three frames. Adams would provide more offensive fireworks in the sixth inning, hitting her second home run of the game to put an exclamation mark on the game.
“After the first home run, I was pretty confident in myself,” said Adams. “But I’m pretty confident in the team anyway. It was absolutely amazing. The intensity of the team was amazing, too.”
After getting first-hand experience of what the state semifinals are like last year, the team as a whole is far more confident coming into this week’s return trip.
“I think it helps a lot,” said Partlow. “Knowing what that feels like will be 10 times easier for the nerves.”
“Last year, I was super nervous,” added Adams. “But I’m ready this time. Everyone will be more calm with the crowd and everything. We have a great team, anyway.”
Bertke shared those feelings, saying, “It helps a lot. Last year, I was freaking out. My nerves were awful. Now we want to improve. We have to focus and have each others’ back and push through and not worry about messing up.”
Brininger noted that one reason his team has so much confidence is simply due to their work ethic.
“Our celebration this year was a lot more muted than last year,” he said. “That’s the kind of team they are. We have kids who want to work. After our practices, they’ll hit for another hour. That’s their focus and determination.”
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS