By CARLA KNAPP
Pharos-Tribune sports editor
Very often when similarly matched teams meet in a tournament setting, games will be determined by experience — which team has more and which team can do the most with it.
Of the three area softball teams that advanced to today’s regional round, two have a tremendous amount of tournament experience and one has very little. What those squads can do with that experience will determine whether or not they can advance to next week’s state tournament.
In Class 2A action, Winamac will take on Delphi at 11 a.m. in the first game of the LaVille Regional while Lewis Cass faces Eastside at 1 p.m. in the second game of the Eastern Regional. In Class A, Pioneer will take on South Central at 12:30 p.m. in the second game of the Caston Regional.
The Lady Warriors (21-5) advanced to the regional level following their first-ever sectional title. After they take on Delphi (14-15), Hammond Noll (13-15) will face Jimtown (22-8) in the second semifinal game.
Interestingly, the two teams with the best records are first-timers at the regional level. Delphi advanced to its only other regional competition in 2004 while Hammond Noll is making its 10th appearance, but first since 1997.
With their tournament histories as well as other similarities between the squads, it’s difficult to pick out a clear favorite in the group. The Jimmies have one small advantage, however, having the shortest drive from neighboring Elkhart County and having just won the sectional there.
The Warriors, on the other hand, are facing an extended bus ride for the early game.
But regardless of past records or the road teams have taken to get to LaVille, Belcher said she sees the field as pretty even.
“Record-wise, we’re going in with a pretty good record, but at this point in the season, you can throw records out the window. I don’t think they mean a whole lot at this point,” she said. “The thing we have to be cautious of as a team is being satisfied. As happy as we were last weekend, I think these kids are ready to play again. If they step on the field ready to play, I think we have a chance to win a game at the regional. If we can get into that championship, hopefully anything can happen.”
In preparation for the game, Belcher and her staff made a trip on Monday to North Montgomery to watch the Lady Oracles in action. What they saw was an impressive pitching display from starter Ashley Brodar (13-10), who gave up just one run throughout the entire tournament. She had a pair of shutouts, including the 3-0 championship win over Fountain Central that earned the Oracles a trip to LaVille.
Having seen their championship game, Belcher likened the Oracles to Rensselaer, which the Warriors defeated 2-0 to win their title.
“We feel we match up pretty well with Delphi,” she said. “They’re probably the most similar to Rensselaer in our sectional. From what we saw on Monday, they’re a fundamentally sound team. They bunt very well and they’re pretty good defensively. We feel like we’ve prepared well for the matchup with Delphi.”
Against Brodar, Winamac will put up a very strong offensive front led by Whitlee Scott. The sophomore leads the team with both her .460 batting average and her .673 on-base percentage. Behind her, Steph Malott is batting .333 while Cortney Brandt and Kristen Alexander are also batting well above .300 for the squad.
Defensively, Rachel Mendiola is in her second season as Winamac’s top pitcher. She boasts a record of 9-3, including two of the team’s three sectional victories. But Scott has proven herself a strong backup for the team and has amassed an 11-2 record with the sectional semifinal win over North Newton.
The tandem has provided a very stable base for Winamac’s defense this year, though Mendiola will likely get the start today against Delphi.
“She’s young, but she doesn’t pitch like a sophomore I think because of the experience she gained last year,” said Belcher. “Last year was her year to gain experience and become familiar with fastpitch softball. She got baptized quickly last year and that prepared her for what she’s been able to do this year. She’s worked very hard at what she does and it’s paid off for her.”
You’d think the Cass and Eastern softball squads would have seen more than enough of each other over the past few years to last a while, but the Comets and Kings would like nothing more than to meet again tonight.
A date tonight will mean the two Mid-Indiana Conference rivals have survived their rugged semifinals and that’s half the battle in getting to state.
This year’s edition of the Eastern Regional is a powder keg, featuring four ranked squads vying for just one ticket to next weekend’s state championship.
No. 3 Eastern (23-6) takes on No. 9 Woodlan (21-4) in the opener while No. 5 Cass (23-2) and No. 4 Eastside (25-5) face off in the second game.
Three of the four teams return from the field in what turned out to be an epic regional last year, held in Garrett. That year, Cass topped Eastside in the semis before losing to eventual state champ Eastern in a marathon 16-inning final.
Eastern and Cass are often in each other’s way for league and postseason honors.
Cass coach Brent Blinn said re-kindling that rivalry would suit him just fine.
“That’s for sure,” he said. “It’s going to be another really good regional and I think most of the teams are pretty evenly matched and we would be tickled to death to be playing for the championship of the regional. It’s going to be a tough road to get there. Eastside has a pretty good team again. They’re well-coached. They’ve got a lot of really good athletes.”
Cass topped Eastern 1-0 in the regular season and went on to win the MIC championship. Eastside and Woodlan are also familiar with each other as Woodlan beat Eastside during the regular season.
Cass and Eastside are meeting in the semifinal round of the regional for the third straight year. Two years ago, Eastside won en route to a trip to the state semifinals. Last season, the Kings came out on top.
Cass, making its ninth-overall and third-straight regional appearance, entered the postseason hitting .334 as a team and boasts a murderer’s row of heavy hitters, led by Rachel Comoglio, who hit .480 in the regular season. In addition, Jennifer Berlet, Kayla Blinn, Ashley Snider, Danya Long and Morgan Baker are in the .300s.
“Hitting-wise, we’ve probably had one of the best team batting averages of any team I’ve coached,” Blinn said. “A lot of the girls have pop in the bat, several that can hit the ball out of the park. We seem to get (hitting) from different parts of the lineup, not always the same part which is really good to have.”
When on defense, Cass relies on pitcher Ollmay Wilson, who had an ERA of 1.33 heading into the postseason and is one of the area’s top hurlers.
“The biggest key is probably Ollmay Wilson,” Blinn said. “She just does a phenomenal job it seems in big games against big teams. Without her, we would probably just be a mediocre team because you’ve got to have somebody on the mound to keep (opponents) from scoring runs.”
Eastside lost a lot from last season’s squad, making for a new challenge this season, but the Blazers responded with their seventh-straight sectional title.
Tiara Mast pitches for Eastside and has racked up a 20-win season. Kristin Berry is the team’s top hitter at .305.
With three of the four teams ranked in the top 10, this is easily the toughest regional in Class A.
Top-ranked Whiting (29-0) will put its undefeated record on the line in the opener against 10th-ranked Lakewood Park (17-7) while Pioneer (14-11) and No. 3 South Central (19-8) follow in a rematch of last year’s championship game. The Lady Panthers won that game 4-2 en route the state semifinals.
In fact, of the four teams in the tournament, Whiting was the only one not in contention here last year. But the Lady Oilers are still one of the most tournament-tested teams here, as they are making their eighth regional appearance today. Only the Panthers have more with 11 overall and eight straight.
Pioneer and Whiting are actually very familiar with each other, having met in both the 2003 and 2004 regionals. The Oilers came out on top in both meetings, 3-2 in 16 innings in the championship game three years ago and 3-0 in nine innings in the semifinal game two years ago.
With the familiarity of all these teams, Pioneer coach Stacey Rogers believes all of them should be smart enough to see past Pioneer’s record to the talent it has.
“It would be a good start for us if they think playing us is going to be a walk in the park,” she said. “I think most schools know the tradition that Pioneer has with softball. They look at who we’ve played and what we do with other teams.”
One of those losses this year was to Whiting at the Class A Shootout in late April. Though it was a tough day for Pioneer, the team still got in three runs against an otherwise stingy defense.
Abby Lesher led Pioneer’s offense in the regular season with a .429 average. Liz Bridge, Jennie Williams and Katie Gillem are all hitting well over .300 as well.
Williams took the loss on the mound to Whiting and has a 12-9 record on the season.
The Panthers and Rogers would like nothing more than to get one more stab at the Oilers, but their first priority is South Central, which is making its sixth regional appearance this season.
“They’re a solid team, they wouldn’t be in the regional if they weren’t,” Rogers said of Lady Satellites. “We won’t take them lightly but we hope they’re a team we can beat.”
Sportswriter Pedro Velazco also contributed to this story.
By CARLA KNAPP
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