Champion and Poland added to their impressive softball histories with state championships a year ago.
The bad news for the rest of Ohio is that both programs appear poised to defend those titles in 2012. Both the Golden Flashes, who won the Division III state championship, and the Bulldogs, who captured the Division II title, return most of their key players from last season.
And in fastpitch softball, no player is more critical than a dominant pitcher.
Champion has senior Lindsay Swipas, who was 19-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 2011. She struck out 167 batters in 115 innings as the Golden Flashes went 27-0.
"Pitching is so key and having Lindsay back with another year of experience under her belt, it only makes things better," Champion coach Cheryl Weaver said.
As good as Swipas was last season, Poland's Erin Gabriel was even more dominant. The University of Tennessee-bound Gabriel was 16-1 with a 0.70 ERA. She struck out 234 in 109 innings as the Bulldogs went 25-2.
"It's a combination of things that make her such a dominant player," Poland coach Reid Lamport said. "It starts with natural talent, which every outstanding player has, but she has a work ethic that is second to none and mental toughness that is very rare in players her age.
"She gets involved in the game emotionally, but she doesn't let her emotions change what she's trying to do. She deals with her emotions very well and she is still highly competitive."
Defending their state championships are chief among those goals for both teams.
"I think there is a strong core to go back," Weaver said. "We have Lindsay and we have Haley McAllister and Alison Sorber, who are also seniors. We have leadership, we have pitching and defense and we have the hitting."
The Golden Flashes are off to a 3-1 start. They lost to Brookfield, 5-4, in a bit of an early season stunner last Wednesday, but bounced back with a 14-0 victory over Niles the next day as Swipas and backup Kayla Hunt combined on a no-hitter. On Friday, Swipas struck out 19 and allowed only one hit in a 1-0 victory over Boardman.
Weaver said Champion's players were motivated after the sting of their first loss since 2010.
"They kind of took it out on Niles," she said. "Then Lindsay got so focused on Boardman. She just pitched a tremendous game. In a way, losing that game was kind of a good thing."
Poland (2-0) opens All-American Conference-American Division play Monday at home against Fitch, then hosts the Falcons on Tuesday. The Bulldogs' first two games came against Girard and Liberty.
"You hate to put all your eggs in one basket and say it won't be a successful season if we don't win the last game and win a state title," Lamport said. "But in our hearts, having done it last year, that's obviously our goal."
COMMON?GROUND:?Weaver and Lamport both mentioned Girard as a team to watch this season. Lamport already has seen the Indians, and Weaver's Golden?Flashes will host them on April 23.
"We hadn't played them since the league split up, so it's been a few years,"?Lamport said. "They're considerably better now. They have a nice core and good coach (Renny Paoline)."
And, as Weaver pointed out, Girard has pitcher Nicholette Maderitz, who was at Ursuline last season.
"I think?Girard us going to be very tough," Weaver said. "They have that sophomore pitcher from Ursuline who transferred back to Girard. That's going to help them to have a nice season."
AROUND?THE?HORN:?Howland is off to a 6-2 start. The Tigers won their division in Ursuline's Strike Out Cancer Tournament at Candlelite Knolls. ... Howland sophomore Emily Price is one of the best young hitters in the area. Price homered in both of the Tigers' games Saturday. ... Bristol started 4-0 behind pitcher Katie Patchin. The Panthers are coached by?Debbie Rowles, who also is Bristol's athletic director. ... Mathews has a new coach in Jim Nicula, who replaced Gene Cheredar, but the Mustangs return several key players who have been part of two regional-qualifying teams and several incoming freshmen were part of a 2011 OGSO state championship team over the summer. Senior Catie Cordy, juniors Jessica Marsico, Tabby Granelly, Hollie Shreves and Jackie Rhine and sophomore Maddie Grimes all lettered last season, when Mathews went 15-9. ... Lakeview (6-1) is off to a hot start. Senior pitcher Alexis Neumeister (12-3, 1.58 ERA in 2011) is one of the area's top pitchers.