Cardington battled through some early-game adversity to make a return trip to the Division III Final Four in softball on Friday at Elida.
In their six-inning 14-4 win against Van Buren in the regional finals, the Pirates jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one inning thanks to run-scoring singles by freshmen Abby Hardwick and Ari Simpson. However, sophomore Genevieve Longsdorf was struggling with injury issues and had to leave the game after walking the first two batters in the top of the second frame.
Simpson replaced her on the mound and was able to minimize the damage done by the Black Knights, only giving up one run.
“She tweaked it (her hip) early in the year and has been battling through it all year,” said Cardington coach Tod Brininger of Longsdorf. “You can’t tell it from her numbers — she’s been dominant. In the last game, on the last play, she did something to it.”
Any worries that the Pirate performance would suffer without Longsdorf on the mound were then erased in the bottom of the third inning. After Simpson pitched a perfect top of the inning, the Pirates started off their half with a bunt single by Dana Bertke. With one out, Riley Burchett drew a walk and Hardwick followed with an infield single to load the bases for Simpson.
The freshman then gave her team some breathing room by cranking a Madison Martin pitch over the left field fence for a grand slam.
“All I was thinking is find a gap and get a hit,” said Simpson. “My mindset was to go out and do my job.”
Brininger was pleased with how Simpson handled the pressure of a regional final.
“What a huge spot for a pitcher to come in and then that hit,” he said. “She’s been up and down this year, but she hits the ball hard. She relaxed today. She’s starting to settle in the moment.”
His players agreed, feeling it was their responsibility to step up to help out their teammate.
“I think it says a lot about us,” said Bertke — one of Cardington’s eight seniors. “We’re such a competitive team. When we need to step up, we step up. All nine of us step up.”
The Pirates then added two more runs to take an 8-1 lead. Kayleigh Ufferman singled and Emalee Artz drew a walk to set up a bases-clearing triple by Mikayla Linkous to give the team a seven-run advantage.
Cardington scored two more in the fourth on a bunt single by Hardwick and a single by Ufferman to lead 10-1 and Van Buren wouldn’t be able to get back into the game.
A two-run double in the fifth by Martin brought them within a seven-run margin again, but Bertke responded with an RBI hit in the bottom of the inning to make it 11-3. After the Black Knights scored once again in the sixth, the Pirates would finish the game in that inning. A bunt by Artz led to a Van Buren error that scored one run, Bertke drove in another with an infield hit and another Van Buren error on a Hailee Edgell grounder then ended the game.
For Cardington, it’s their first trip back to Akron for the Final Four since 2019. Their three-year streak of making it that far was ended when the 2020 season was canceled and then the team was eliminated in the regional finals last year.
For the team’s seniors, it’s a return trip to a venue they last experienced as freshmen.
“I was a runner,” said Linkous. “Casey Bertke made a hit and I got on second base and I was absolutely petrified to be there. It’s a little more pressure (being a senior leader) now, but I’ve gotten used to it. If I don’t get on base, I have someone who will.”
“It was such a great environment,” Burchett said of Akron’s Firestone Stadium. “Even though we didn’t come out on top, we were so proud of ourselves.”
“I remember going to state,” added Edgell. “It’s definitely a big thing to go into the stadium and the whole community is there cheering for you.”
While Brininger feels his team will need to play a bit better at Akron, citing a few opportunities his squad didn’t take advantage of against Van Buren, his message to the team is simple.
“The message is going to be, it’s softball and relax,” he said. “It’s a great stage and you earned it. We just have to relax and focus on fundamentals.”
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS