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Published: Thursday, 5/21/2009

Sidelines: Strong hitting propels Clay to CL title, district final

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Clay junior Eryn Simon, hitting .429 (4 HR, 34 RBIs) scores as Central Catholic catcher Rachael Ryan awaits the throw in the City League final. Clay junior Eryn Simon, hitting .429 (4 HR, 34 RBIs) scores as Central Catholic catcher Rachael Ryan awaits the throw in the City League final.
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In a sport where many big games wind up with scores of 1-0, 2-1 or3-2, most successful fastpitch softball teams are built around the staples of stingy pitching and reliable defense.

City League champion Clay (22-5) certainly has a healthy mix of those elements. First, there s the pitching duo of junior Kasey Graham and senior Erin Screptock. And, the Eagles are also solid in the field, especially up the middle. Juniors Sarah Stibaner, Eryn Simon and Hallie Thompson excel at catcher, second base and shortstop, respectively, and speedy freshman Kim Crawford roams center field.

But what has gotten ninth-year coach Brenda Radabaugh s team into today s Division I district final against Sandusky (5 p.m. at Tiffin University) is its most obvious strength a potent batting attack bolstered by an aggressive base running style.

After April 25 when Clay suffered 5-2 losses to both Springfield and Anthony Wayne in the City League/Northern Lakes League Challenge and dropped to 9-5 on the season the Eagles have stoked an offensive fire and reeled off 13 straight victories.

Kasey Graham, a junior, has a 12-4 record on the mound with a 1.40 ERA. Kasey Graham, a junior, has a 12-4 record on the mound with a 1.40 ERA.
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We ve stayed aggressive all year long and our players are pretty confident with the bat, Radabaugh said.

The latest three wins came earlier this week as Clay topped Whitmer 6-1 in Sunday s CL semifinals, used a 17-hit attack to beat Central Catholic 8-3 in Monday s championship game, and then eliminated probable NLL champion Springfield by a decisive 8-0 count in Tuesday s D-I district semifinal at Bowling Green.

During the streak, the Eagles have outscored foes by an average of 7.9 to 1.4 runs per game, up from 6.2-to-2.1 average over the first 14 games.

The streak began with an 11-0 win at Findlay on April 27, reached six straight with an eye-opening 9-1 victory May 8 at defending CL champion St. Ursula, and went to nine in a row when Clay avenged its earlier loss to Anthony Wayne with a dominant 8-3 triumph in a May 12 sectional final.

The Eagles, who are batting .323 as a team, are led at the plate by the top five hitters in the order. Sophomore leadoff batter Danielle Holmes, who plays right field, is at .410 (41 for 100), Crawford .450 (45 for 100), Simon .429 (39 for 91), Stibaner .367 (29 for 79) and senior third baseman Lindsey Wise .292 (26 for 89).

This has got to be the best hitting team I ve had, top to bottom, since I ve been coaching, including nine years at Central and nine years here at Clay, Radabaugh said. And, it s not always the people with the highest batting average. Sometimes it s people who just put the ball in play when we need them to with runners on base.

We have people who can bunt and move runners around. We have speed and slappers, base hitters and power hitters. A little bit of everything. Wherever we re at in the batting order we can score runs.

Clay is getting great play in all facets of the game. Some top performers include  junior Sarah Stibaner (.450, 24 RBIs), left, sophomore Danielle Holmes (.410) and freshman Kim Crawford (.450, 24 RBIs). The Eagles are 22-5. Clay is getting great play in all facets of the game. Some top performers include junior Sarah Stibaner (.450, 24 RBIs), left, sophomore Danielle Holmes (.410) and freshman Kim Crawford (.450, 24 RBIs). The Eagles are 22-5.
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Simon, who delivered two doubles and a triple in the CL playoff wins, added a home run in the district win over Springfield. She leads Clay with 34 RBIs, four homers and 33 runs scored.

It s teamwork, Simon said of Clay s key to success. If we make errors we re always picking each other up. On offense, if the top of the order s not hitting, then the bottom of the order picks us up.

We re very aggressive. We like to hit and, when we can get extra bases, we take them. On defense, we definitely make the plays when we need to.

Stibaner has seven doubles and 29 RBIs, and Crawford has a team-best eight doubles and 24 RBIs.

Lately we ve just been working really well together, Crawford said. We re clicking on and off the field, and that has showed.

We started off a little rough, getting to know each other. But once we came together and did some activities together off the field, things just started to click on the field.

Speed is a big part of our game. Being aggressive on the bases leads to more runs, and when you have more runs you win games.

Holmes, the offensive catalyst at the top, highlights Clay s speed game along with Crawford

We ve been successful because we ve been working as a team and really communicated, Holmes said. At the beginning of the season we weren t meshing, but we ve gotten over that, and our hitting started to come around.

The St. Ursula game was definitely a turning point because we were all pumped up and ready to go. We were tied with them in the City at the time, and we really wanted the league title.

Clay, which won its third City championship in four seasons, graduated last season s formidable 1-2All-City pitching duo of Lauren Frank and Brandy Holmes. So, Radabaugh had some uncertainty on the mound entering the season. Her questions have been answered effectively byGraham (12-4, 1.40 ERA) andScreptock (9-1, 0.69 ERA).

I thought we were going to be a pretty good hitting team, Radabaugh said. I was hoping we d be a good defensive team, and we ve made some big plays when we needed to.

Our only real question mark was that we had young pitchers. But we ve had run production for them the whole time, and we ve played decent defense for them.

Clay is bidding for its first trip to the regionals since 2002 when the Eagles lost 8-0 in the semifinals to Southview.

In the two CL playoff games and the district contest against Springfield, Graham went 3-0 and yielded just one earned run in 20 innings.

When we score in the first inning, Graham said, that definitely gives me confidence going in to pitch. We seem to hit like that every game and that definitely helps me pitch. We re very confident for every game.

Contact Steve Junga at:sjunga@theblade.comor 419-724-6461.



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