In interviews, Tiffin softball coach Jeff Nickerson has a low-key style with a dry sense of humor that can throw a reporter off.
I know this from personal experience. When he was hired in the summer of 2008 to replace Brian Campbell, he talked to me about his extensive and rather impressive coaching career, which included stops at Presbyterian College and Ohio Northern.
I noticed he had been out of softball for a few years, so I asked him what he was doing during that time.
"State penitentiary," he replied.
The fact he said this with the seriousness of a spring thunderstorm gave me pause. I fumbled for words before he finally cut me off and told me he was kidding.
This year's Dragons, however, are no joke.
Tiffin won its first Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference regular season championship last week, and after an 8-6 win Saturday over Ashland, has advanced to the league's tournament championship game, to be played today.
At 38-12, TU is all but assured its second-consecutive trip to the Division II regionals, something that seemed like a dream just two years ago, when the Dragons went 23-25 and just 9-16 in conference play.
So how did this happen?
When I asked Nickerson this question Friday night, he attributed it to "bringing in the right players at the right time," and praised his assistant coaches, DeDe Justice, Jessica Sallinger, Sarah Haynes and grad assistant Amanda Ritzler, a Calvert graduate.
As for the players, one immediately takes notice of pitcher Mindy Meredith, a freshman from Hudson who had a win and a save in the Dragons' first two tournament wins Friday, and led the GLIAC with a 1.50 earned run average. Then there's Meagan Baird, a native of Ontario, Canada who hit three homers in Saturday's 8-6 win over Ashland, and who has four homers in the tournament after hitting four in the regular season.
Amanda Temple tied for the league lead in doubles, while Lauren Mazzuca is third in the GLIAC with 53 runs scored.
But the contributions from players don't end with the ones Nickerson recruited. First baseman Tiffany Smith wasn't brought in by the current coach, but Nickerson said she's been a huge factor in the Dragons' success. A leader on and off the field, Smith leads TU with eight homers.
"She's a great leader and a great kid, the type of player I would have recruited," Nickerson said.
Nickerson makes his approach with the players sound somewhat simple.
"We talk about our opportunities," he said. "We make sure we work hard in practice. We take everything one pitch at a time."
There should be plenty of opportunities in the coming days and weeks, starting with today's 10 a.m. tournament final with Saginaw Valley State.
Zach Baker is associate sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune.
Contact him at: