In an effort to become the best, the Springfield softball team has gone through a gauntlet of some of the best teams in Ohio.
The Blue Devils have squared off against seven teams ranked among the top 10 in the state during the regular season. The battled-tested Blue Devils (19-4) will play in the district title game on Friday and are ranked No. 8 in Division I.
“The sole purpose of putting that schedule together is to hopefully make a deep tournament run,” coach Rob Gwozdz said. “We've already played the best.”
The Blue Devils went 4-3 against the elite in the state with the biggest win coming against three-time D-I defending state champion North Canton Hoover, which was ranked No. 1 at the time Springfield took a 4-1 victory at the prestigious Prebis Memorial Tournament.
“That was one of the biggest wins in my 13 years,” said Gwozdz, who has a career record of 250-99. “They were ranked eighth in the country at the time. That is in the back of our minds. If we can play with them, we can play with anyone.”
Junior shortstop Hannah Girlie, who has a .471 batting average with 41 RBIs, said stiff tests against Edison, Clyde, and Archbold should pay dividends.
“We've seen the best,” Girlie said. “That helps us a lot. That Hoover game was the best I've played in. It felt like a state championship. It was huge.”
Senior pitcher Lauren Yates (12-2) has taken over as the team's ace and has a 2.37 ERA.
“The North Canton game was the biggest game I've ever played in,” Yates said. “It was the biggest confidence booster ever. We all worked together. That is the only way you can beat the best. We played with nothing to lose.”
The Blue Devils also play in one of the state's toughest conferences and are in position to win their third straight Northern Lakes League title. They are 9-1 with four games left. Springfield avenged its only league loss with a 5-4 win Saturday over Anthony Wayne.
“Winning the league is very important,” Gwozdz said. “We talk about tradition.”
The Blue Devils have won five of the last nine NLL titles and reached the state semifinals in 2010.
Sophomore catcher Kierra Hague, who leads the team with seven home runs and 42 RBIs, is batting .470 with 13 stolen bases.
“It's fun and it's a great feeling to be on this team,” Hague said. “Everyone on this team is a competitor. We all want to play well.”
Hague bats cleanup behind Girlie, who smacked 10 home runs last season to help Springfield set a new school record with 27 homers.
“A lot of teams pitch around Hannah and Kie has done nothing but deliver,” Gwozdz said. “The neat thing about Hannah is that she knows she'll only get one pitch in an at-bat and she has to go get it.”
Girlie has five home runs this year and 24 in her career. The Blue Devils have hit 21 as a team.
“More than half of the lineup is capable of hitting a home run,” Girlie said. “It just gives us more confidence because any girl can turn the game around with one hit.”
The catalyst of the offense has been lead-off hitter and center fielder Kiley Aller. The junior leads the team in batting average (.581), stolen bases (16), and runs scored with 37. Aller, who has committed to play at Lipscomb (Tenn.) University, also has 17 RBIs.
“Aller has been amazing in center field,” Gwozdz said. “She can go get anything.”
She is one of four three-year starters and eight returning starters.
Libby Mathewson, a junior, is back at second base, hitting .432 with 20 RBIs. She has scored 31 runs. Brianna Espino, a junior batting .373 with 32 RBIs, is back at third base.
“One through nine anyone can go up to plate and can produce,” Hague said. “It's a good feeling to know we can turn a game around with home runs.”
Yates said her team's productive offense and solid defense make her job easier.
“With our lineup, I am confident,” she said. “No matter if we are down I know we can get runs from the top or bottom. I have a lot of confidence in my defense, I know every pitch my defense will lay out.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding the team heading into the season was in the circle.
Bre Buck, a senior, was poised to return after a tremendous junior year when she went 18-2 and had a 1.09 ERA to earn All-Ohio first-team honors. But Buck suffered a torn muscle in her hip that has prevented her from driving off of her leg.
But Buck starts in left field and has a .394 average with 25 RBIs.
Yates, who was the team's No. 2 pitcher last year, has stepped up her game.
“I could not be more proud of her,” Gwozdz said. “She took it and ran. In every big game, she has done everything we've asked of her.”
Yates will pitch at Owens Community College next year.
“It's been great,” she said. “I've been put on back burner. But I've worked really hard every year. I felt like this was my year and my time to shine. I'm ready for the big games.”
Lexi Buck (7-2), Bre’s sophomore sister, also has stepped in and has a 2.84 ERA. She also plays first base. Paige LaPoint, a senior, is the team's designated player and sophomore Kyle Rockman plays right field.
The Blue Devils' tournament runs have been derailed in the district semifinals in each of the last two seasons.
“The past two years we've come up short,” Girlie said. “Our passion is to make it farther. Honestly I think this is our best shot with the talent we have.”