Blue Jackets making return to regionals

If you play softball for Jamie Lininger, chances are you’re going to play in the regional tournament. In the 10 years Lininger has coached the New Riegel Blue Jackets, every girl that has come through the program has held up the district championship trophy, and played in a regional game.

For Lininiger, it’s not only a point of pride, but a factor that keeps a team nearly completely made up of first time regional qualifiers from being complacent with just making the trip.

“Every kid that’s ever played for us has played in a regional,” Lininger said. “They’ve seen their older sisters be there and they know they can take it a step farther. I know they have bigger goals in mind.”

After claiming their fourth district title under Lininger (2004, ’08, ’10) the Blue Jackets will take on the Rockford Parkway Panthers in a Division IV regional semifinal at Findlay High School today at 5 p.m..

New Riegel is making its first trip to regionals since its run to the state tournament in 2010. Parkway last played on a regional stage in 2009. Since then the Panthers have spent a couple years playing in Division III, where they ran into a state power in Archbold, and last year dropped their district title game by one run to eventual state champion Convoy Crestview.

Parkway coach Mark Esselstein said seeing how much Crestview accomplished a year ago was an inspiration to his team, especially his six returning starters, about how far they could go.

“We didn’t play our best game against Crestview, and we were so close,” Esselstein said of his team’s 3-2 defeat. “The game ended on a diving catch, where if the ball would’ve dropped, we would’ve scored two runs and had the lead going into the bottom of the seventh. But we took the result of that game and saw what Crestview was able to do, and said that very easily could’ve been us. From that point on, we realized the kids we have coming back were capable of making a good tournament run.”

Both teams have taken a similar path to today’s game. The way each season started, neither team seemed destined to make Division IV’s Sweet 16. Parkway started off the season 1-3, while New Riegel got off to a 1-4 start. But, by season’s end, Parkway was ranked second in the final coaches’ association poll with a 20-5 record, while the Blue Jackets finished tied for third with a 22-7 mark.

Lininger said his team has been playing some of its best softball of the year during the past few weeks, but does he think he team has hit its peak?

“I don’t think so, I think there’s room for improvement still,” he said. “We’re hitting the ball well, but we can do better. Defensively we’re pretty good, but there is always things to shore up, there’s always room for improvement.”

His team will have to bring its top game against Parkway. Esselstein said his team has steadily improved while going 19-2 after its slow start.

“Our pitching has really gotten better as the season progressed, and more kids have been stepping up offensively,” Esselstein said. “I think we’re mentally tough. Our pitcher, Sierra Fent, will give us a chance to win any game we’re in. We need to come up with good at-bats. We’ve been fortunate here lately, we’ve scored a lot of runs with two outs. The kids are really focused on what they want to try to accomplish. We’re not outstanding in any one area, but we do a lot of little things well.”

Fent has compiled a 14-3 record for the Panthers with a 1.43 ERA. She’s struck out 123 in 98 innings. Fent’s also one of Parkway’s top hitters with a .366 average, eight home runs and 34 RBIs.

Lindsey Walls leads the Panthers with a .403 average while driving in 18 runs this year. Kylie Snyder hits .375 with 13 RBIs. Kayla Walls has scored 26 runs while posting a .368 average.

New Riegel has its own corp of solid hitters.

Cassandra Acree hits .407, Morgan Noftz has a .380 average and four home runs, Kara Scherger sports a .393 average and six home runs and Taylor Arbogast hits .384.

Then there’s Taylor Kirian. All she’s done this year is set Ohio’s all-time record for home runs in a season with 18, while hitting at a .608 clip this year. But if New Riegel’s going to move on to a regional final, her arm might be more important than her bat.

Kirian has a 20-7 record in the circle with a 2.54 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 162 innings.

“When we face better teams, that’s going to be important,” Lininger said of the importance of pitching. “Little things are going to make a difference. We have other hitters that can all do some damage; she’s our only pitcher; we’re going to rely on her.”

While both teams are full of youth and inexperience when it comes to regional competition, New Riegel has the only player that’s been on this stage before in Acree, who was a freshman on the ’10 team.

Lininger credits her effort and her leadership as important factors to this team’s success.

“She’s a good leader, and it can’t hurt to have someone who’s been there before, especially someone like her,” he said. “She’s a nice kid that’s not out for any glory, she’s just out to win the game.”