The Midland Athletic League is closing up shop after this season, but if the MAL is going out, its going out in a blaze of glory.
Three of the 16 teams left standing in the Division IV state softball tournament are MAL members. Two of them, Lakota and New Riegel, will play this week in the Findlay regional at The Cube. New Riegel takes on Wayne Trace today while Lakota faces Patrick Henry Thursday. Both games are scheduled for a 5 p.m. first pitch.
Seneca East is the other MAL team still alive. The Tigers play today against Berlin Center Western Reserve in the Kent Regional (see related story).
New Riegel’s Taylor Kirian pitches in Friday’s district title game in Kenton.
Lakota’s Alaina Bickford and Alexandra Hovis (3) lift up the district championship trophy Friday in Fremont.
This week in Findlay, New Riegel comes with a wealth of experience. Eight starters return from the Blue Jacket team that reached the regional semifinals last year, where Rockford Parkway ended its run with a 7-4 victory.
Lakota, on the other hand, had been knocking on the door at districts the past couple years before finally breaking through, beating Calvert 5-2 Friday for the district title. The challenge now, though, for coach Chris Chalfin and the Raiders is to go to regionals with a mindset that the district title wasn't the end of the line, and there's much more that can be accomplished.
"We got to push them to be better," Chalfin said. "One of the things I tried to tell them tonight, I don't know that there's ever been a team at Lakota that's went to a regional, that's won a regional game. I know there have been basketball teams and volleyball teams go to regionals, but I don't know if any of them won once they got there. I'm trying to use that as motivation. 'You can do something no team at Lakota has ever done.' As coaches we got to convince them there's more than just winning the district. We'll do our best to motivate them to keep going."
New Riegel is looking to use last year's experience as a motivation to go further this time around.
"I think we have a great attitude," New Riegel coach Jamie Lininger said. "We're just going at it like business as usual. They know how close we were last year; they know what we need to do to go out and win. Hopefully we go out, play our game and get the job done."
New Riegel and Wayne Trace have some history with each other. In 2010, the Blue Jackets beat the Raiders 3-0 in a regional final.
Wayne Trace played in Division III the past two years before dropping back down to Division IV this year. According to Lininger, when he was talking with Parkway coach Mark Esselstein after last year's regional, Esselstein said his team likely would be bumped up to Division III while Wayne Trace would likely drop down, and labeled the Raiders a team to watch.
When New Riegel (25-4) faces off with Wayne Trace (20-7) today, the Blue Jackets know they'll be up against a good pitcher. They just don't know who that great pitcher will be.
Molly Crosby is 9-3 with a 2.68 ERA. She's struck out 82 in 78 1/3 innings. Addie Baumle is 11-4 with a 0.90 ERA. She struck out 148 in 100 2/3 innings. Wayne Trace coach Jack Baumle said he's equally confident in both, and if the situation dictates, wouldn't hesitate to throw both.
"They really have (carried us) through the whole season," Coach Baumle said. "We alternated them through the season. Looking at both at them, their numbers are good. It's great to have a pair of pitchers like that. We've only needed a couple times where we've had to switch out. Sometimes if we think the other team is catching up, we might bring in the other one to change things up. Both have different styles, different fortes."
But while the strength of Wayne Trace lies with its arms, the strength of New Riegel is its bats.
Taylor Kirian (.562), Kara Scherger (.500), Lauren Zoeller (.428), Taylor Arbogast (.428) and Morgan Noftz (.416) enter today's game hitting over .400. Lininger says he feels his team is coming in much hotter compared to a year ago.
"We definitely have the momentum right now," he said. "Everybody's hitting and when that's the case, hitting is always contagious. One person hits and that makes it easier on the next person. Last year even though we hit 36 home runs, I didn't get the feeling we were smacking the ball at the end of the year. This year we're hitting the ball hard and doing it at the right time."
History exists between Lakota and Patrick Henry as well. In 2010 and 2011 Patrick Henry knocked Lakota out in sectional play while the teams were both in Division III.
Three Patriots come in hitting better than .500 - Natalie Herder (.536), Rachel Nye (.525) and Kristin Bostelman (.512) - and have some pop in their bats as well. Chalfin pointed to Patrick Henry's 3-2 district championship victory against Van Buren as evidence of that.
"They got some kids that can hit the ball out of the park," Chalfin said. "Obviously if you look at the score against Van Buren, they had a two-run home run and solo home run. So that accounted for all three of their runs. So, they got the ability to hit the ball a long ways, and got some role players that can hit for average, manufacture runs, too."
Chalfin will turn to ace hurler Morgan Gangwer to stop the Patriot attack. Gangwer is coming off a three-hitter in the district title game.
"What I've noticed the past few games, she's had a little better command than what she had early in the season, or even in the middle of the season," Chalfin said. "Now you get to this situation or this far in the tournament, and pretty much everyone in the lineup is a player, and a good player. You got to limit your mistakes, everybody does. Sometimes when you're playing a team without good hitters all the way in the lineup, you can throw ball down the middle of the plate and not pay for it. Now you can't do that against better teams. She's pitching really well right now, her command has gotten a little better. Obviously she'll have to pitch well to have a chance to move on."
The two winners meet noon Saturday back in Findlay where a trip to the state semifinals will be on the line.