It was a long time coming, but northwest Ohio has become a hotbed for high school fastpitch softball in recent years.
The last two Division I state championship teams have come from the Northern Lakes League (Anthony Wayne in 2003) and the City League (St. Ursula Academy 2004), and Gibsonburg of the Suburban Lakes League won three straight Division IV titles (2001-03) and was the state runner-up last year.
Also, Archbold, the area s one true state power in the 1980s, made its first state semifinal appearance since 1987 last season in Division III.
Beginning with the first Ohio state softball tournament in 1978, through 2000, schools from northwest Ohio (Blade circulation area) combined for 17 state semifinal appearances in 23 years, with five titles (three by Archbold) and four runner-up finishes.
The past four seasons have included eight appearances, five titles and one runner-up finish from the CL, NLL, SLL and NWOAL alone.
So what has made the difference?
Local coaches point to the vastly increased number of area girls playing significantly more games on travel teams in the summer.
The upgraded competition has produced players like current St. Ursula senior standout Hayley Wiemer; Anthony Wayne s Jenn Woods, who pitched shutouts in all seven of the Generals state-tourney wins in 2003; Gibsonburg s Jamie Wonderly, who pitched the Golden Bears to all three of their state titles; Ali Warren, who pitched Gibsonburg back to the finals last year; Nikki Denman, who hurled Southview to the regional finals in 2000 and 2002, and younger sister Lindsi Denman, who earned first-team All-Ohio honors as a junior shortstop-pitcher for the district runner-up Cougars last year.
Wiemer, Lindsi Denman and Warren return this season to lead their teams.
A year ago, Wiemer, a first-team All-Ohioan, helped pitch and hit SUA to a No.2 state ranking and a 27-4 record, capped by a 2-1 victory over Uniontown Lake in the D-I state final. St. Ursula was the first CL team to reach state.
Wiemer was 21-2 pitching with 256 strikeouts and 54 hits allowed in 158 innings and a 0.18 earned-run average. At the plate, she was 35-of-78 (.449) with seven doubles, seven triples, nine home runs and 23 RBIs. Wiemer later played a crucial role in the Arrows state volleyball championship last fall.
Last year s whole journey was amazing, Wiemer said. It was the best time of my life, the best season. You couldn t get a better group of girls with a better coach and better parents. Everything just clicked.
I learned so much from that softball season, and it carried over to volleyball season. Hopefully it ll carry over into this softball season.
Seniors Chelsey Jones (2B) and Siera Reichler (3B), and junior Alyssa Frobase (SS) also return as starters for SUA, which underwent a coaching change. Former coach and school athletic director Julie Barber relocated to Columbus. Former University of Toledo assistant baseball coach Steve Parrill has assumed both duties.
When you re traveling around this area for games, you re seeing the best pitchers, the best fielding, and the best hitters with the quickest hands, Wiemer said. It s good to know that, once you make it out of this area, your chances are pretty good when you get to state.
Lindsi Denman, who split pitching time with Lauren Soldner, helped lead Southview to a No. 4 state ranking, a three-way tie for the NLL title with Northview and Perrysburg (all 11-3), and a 24-5 overall record. Southview lost 3-0 to St. Ursula in the district final.
Denman batted .440, stole nearly 30 bases, and posted a 13-1 pitching record with 74 strikeouts and a 0.99 ERA in 921/3 innings. Other returning starters include Jessica Snyder (3B), Suzy Lenninger (SS) and Lindsay Bartnik (CF). Senior Shannon Murphy (P-1B-OF) will share the starting mound duties.
The competition around here is outstanding, Denman said. There s just so many [good] teams that every year it could be another team out there [that advances]. Our schedule prepares us so well. When we get toward states it s just like playing someone else from around here.
We ll be good this year. We ll give em a run for their money again and hopefully we ll have a different outcome.
Warren, the left fielder on Gibsonburg s 2002 and 2003 state-title teams, had the unenviable role last year of succeeding Wonderly, who had pitched the Bears to three state titles.
Warren was up for the task, posting a 24-7 record with 267 strikeouts and just 35 walks in 216 innings, allowed 100 hits and posting a 0.81 ERA. The Bears, ranked No. 4 in Ohio, made it back to the state final before losing 2-1 to Crestline, which scored an unearned run with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning.
In her four seasons as Gibsonburg s coach, Erika Foster has a 107-15 record, including an amazing 27-1 in state-tourney play.
[Monday] after practice we made the same goal just to take it one game at a time and try to get back down to state, Warren said. Hopefully we ll be down there, but we ll see what happens.
There was a lot of pressure last year. Everybody was out to get us. We had a target on our backs. But we pulled together as a team and went through the season strong. I think we can do that again this year.
Other starters returning for Gibsonburg include seniors Julie Beaschler (C), who batted .390, Aisha Kaemming (SS), and Kristen Dix (DH), and juniors Jessica Swain (CF) and Alexis Donnell (2B).
Softball has improved a lot over the past few years, Warren said. Now everybody plays travel ball, so the teams at school are getting tougher and the leagues are getting stronger and I think northwest Ohio just has really strong play all around.
Our league is very tough, and we re the only Division IV school. So, once we get into the tournament and play Division IV teams, it s not that it s easy, but we re well-prepared for it and we re ready.
Other top local players back this season include Delta s fourth-year pitching star Amy Mattin, a two-time Division III All-Ohioan, and Archbold s Britt Sevey, who helped the Blue Streaks march to the D-III semis last spring.
Contact Steve Junga at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461.