By BOB ETTINGER
Special to Tribune Chronicle
JEFFERSON - There are a lot of reasons the Jefferson softball team was playing for the All-American Conference, National Division championship. There is one important, if little-known, reason the Falcons claimed that title with a 13-3 victory over LaBrae on Wednesday at the JAGS Complex.
"We have three seniors, two, Amanda Krause and Sarah Busch, of whom are four-year letterwinners and the third, Ariann Barile, who has earned her second letter and who would run through a brick wall, help you pick up the pieces then do it again," Jefferson coach Don McCormack said. "That was key for this group."
On April 25, the Falcons (18-4, 8-1) and the Vikings began the contest that would ultimately decide the AAC title. LaBrae scored three runs - two unearned - in the top of the first inning before rain suspended the contest with the Falcons coming to the plate.
"Being down, 3-0, reminded me of being the favorite in an NFL game giving minus-3 points," McCormack said. "We had our chances to play small ball and didn't do it. I was hoping for and expecting a big inning or two or three. We didn't play small ball and the Lord blessed us two or three times."
Holding that 3-0 advantage may have provided the Vikings (14-5, 7-3) with a false sense of security.
"Probably," LaBrae coach Demetra Noble said. "Girls are wacky."
"I think LaBrae got off the bus feeling they had it locked up," McCormack said. "I think my girls sensed that and it gave them, as if they needed it, a little more focus. Whether it's true or not, that's how they perceived it and it was, 'OK, not on our field.' "
The Jefferson seniors, who are playing under their third coach in four years, as well as injured shortstop Deanna Comp, have set the example for a group of sophomores and freshmen in winning the team's first outright league title since Rod Holmes and McCormack, as an assistant, led the Falcons to Northeastern Conference championships in 1997 and '98. Jefferson shared the NEC title with Edgewood in 2007.
It was also the school's first AAC championship in a girls' sport.
The Falcons plated their first run in the third when Bailey Beckwith singled to score Krause.
Over the next three innings, Kaycee Fusco put on a hitting display that dismantled all hopes for LaBrae.
In the fourth, McKenzie Wilber walked and Barile singled, bringing up Fusco with no outs. She deposited the ball over the center-field fence to give the Falcons the lead, 4-3.
Busch doubled to open the fifth and scored on a ground out from Sam Hamski. Wilber walked with two outs and Barile singled again. Fusco tripled to right putting Jefferson up four, 7-3, and chasing LaBrae starter Emily Dugan (8-4) from the contest.
After Busch singled home Emily Smock, Wilber hit a sacrifice fly to score Beckwith Barile's infield singled scored Busch, Fusco struck again. This time, she put the ball over the right-field fence for a three-run bomb that ended the contest.
Fusco was 4-for-4 in the game with a single, a triple and a pair of homers. She drove in eight of the Falcons' 13 runs.
"It feels really good," Fusco said. "I never thought I'd bat a thousand in a day. Never, ever. My teammates picked me up. I was praying for no rain. I was ready for this game. It was a championship game. I was ready."
"It must have been (Fusco's day)," Noble said. "The eight hitter hitting it out every single time is nuts."
Fusco has homered four times, tying the Jefferson single-season record set by Rachel Francis in 2010.
"She had the game-winning hit at Conneaut off a great pitcher in Lexi Zappitelli and the game-winning hit against Edgewood, another quality team," McCormack said. "This is not surprising. She made an adjustment about 10 days ago, stopped try to pull everything. Hitting the ball where it's pitched, with her size and strength, it's going to go.
"She's raised her batting average a hundred points in the last two weeks. It's not just home runs."
After that shaky start, Alyssa Irons (7-2) got the win.
"I just don't think we were ready to play (April 25)," Irons said. "The weather didn't help. I felt more prepared today.
"It felt like a normal game. You just do your job as you always would. You don't want to let a run in, but (the three runs) were what the hitters had to come up with."
"She was a little slower last time," Noble said. "It was colder. She was humming today. She wanted it more."
"You can't put the game on your pitcher when you don't hit. We can't compete when we don't hit. We didn't hit the ball. It wasn't a real impressive performance, was it?"
The Falcons received some support earlier Wednesday from an unlikely source.
"Coach Eleshia Pitcher at Geneva sent us an email wishing us luck," McCormack said. "We had talked last week and we both said we wanted to lock up championships and bring them back to Ashtabula County. She wished us luck and said they got theirs, top get ours. I thought that showed a lot of class."
It was a special night for McCormack, who grew up coaching all different levels and ages of softball at the JAGS Complex.
"To see a group of kids do what this group kids has done, considering their youth and the fact that I'm their third head coach in four years, at the place my mother Sylvia, helped build and where the money from her calling hours and funeral went to build the press box and to have my sister, Jodie Fetters here... I couldn't ask for a better night. I sure hope mom is proud."