Teams taking tournament trail a step at a time

LIBERTY – Champion softball coach Cheryl Weaver isn’t thinking in terms of defending the Golden Flashes’ Division III state championship. There are far too many steps her troops need to take to even have that opportunity. In that regard, she and Howland coach Melissa Starkey have the same approach.

“Right now, our first goal is to win the league,” Weaver said. “We have games with LaBrae on Monday and Tuesday. If we lose one of them, we could end up in a three-way tie. We’re warming up for the tournament with the goal of winning the league. After Tuesday, our next goal is to win the sectional. We have to take it in steps.

“There’s always going to be talk of getting back (to the state tournament), but right now, we’ve got to take it in steps. You never want to look too far ahead. Right now, the league championship is what we want.”

The Golden Flashes (19-4) toppled the Tigers (9-15) in a postseason tune-up at the Mahoning Valley Invitational at Liberty Township Park on Saturday afternoon with Champion plating five in the sixth to pull away for the 7-1 victory.

“Our approach right now is where it needs to be,” Starkey said. “We’re finishing as well as we start. We’ve struggled with that this year. We’ve made errors and not been able to come back. Really, we only have one, sometimes two, seniors on the field, so we’re young. I’d like to see the younger girls grow and mature and get to the level of play we need them to.”

Weaver understands that as the defending state champs, the Golden Flashes will be wearing a big target over the next several weeks.

“That target only gets bigger the further you go,” she said. “The target gets bigger and everyone wants you. You’ve got to be able to stand and take it. You have to fight back and you have to see the target on the other team’s back.”

“We played well this morning,” Starkey said. “We lost to South Range in the ninth. South Range is also a very good team. We played five very strong innings against Champion and it was 2-1. I’m pleased with that. We’re starting to play our best right now. Winning and losing doesn’t matter until Tuesday.

“We have no easy games on our schedule. No one in our conference does. We talked this morning and winning or losing doesn’t matter right now. We’re getting ourselves ready and getting our confidence in doing the little things. It wasn’t errors that beat us, it was hits. I don’t have a problem with losing a game like that.”

“We hadn’t played Howland in a couple of years,” Weaver said. “If you look at this weekend, it’s a good warmup for the tournament. I’m glad we got to play teams like West Branch, Howland and North Royalton.

“We gained more field experience and faced different pitchers who throw different kinds of pitches with different kinds of speeds. In the tournament, you have no idea what kinds of pitchers you’re going to see. I’m glad we got some chances to put down sacrifices. I feel we need work on that. We do it really well in practice, but we need to be able to do it in games.”

Howland will open postseason play at Hubbard in a Division II sectional semifinal at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Golden Flashes will get the Cardinal-Conneaut winner in a sectional championship game at Champion at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

Price has been about as hot a hitter as there is with seven home runs in the last week. The last of those gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the top of the first.

“She’s the one who really amps us up,” Starkey said. “She gets us going. I had her leading off, but I moved her. She’s been hitting the ball so well, I wanted to get some of our faster girls on in front of her. She was hitting so many solo home runs, I felt like we were wasting them.”

Champion shortstop Megan Turner returned the favor and gave the Golden Flashes a 2-1 lead in the home half of the third. In the sixth, the Golden Flashes struck for five more runs behind four hits and a pair of walks.

“Against a team like Howland, who can come back on you, especially with (Howland pitcher/shortstop Sara) Price batting, a big lead like that is important,” Weaver said.

Starkey didn’t mind the way the game was broken open as Tigers didn’t beat themselves.

“I thought we played well through five innings,” Starkey said. “Sara has only been pitching for about a week. She threw four innings this morning already. She did a great job shutting down their big hitters. The one big hit was the home run in the third. Champion is a great team and we hung with them through five innings. I’m pleased.

“(Champion) was patient. “Hannah went in and she was not throwing the way I’d hoped. They had opportunities to put it in play. They beat us with base hits. All five of those runs were earned. Good teams will do that. They’re patient and disciplined.”

The one area Weaver has been truly impressed with the Golden Flashes heading into the postseason is the defense. There’s only one question that remains.

“I’m very proud of our defense,” Weaver said. “I believe we had a .981 fielding percentage before this game. When we won state all the other years, I never had a team in the .980s. Last year, we were at .972 and the other years we were .950 or .960. Our defense and pitching are right there.

“It’s going to be timely hitting. It always is, no matter what. Defense wins championships, but you’ve got to score runs, too. We didn’t score until the sixth inning against West Branch (on Friday night). We knew it was going to be a one-run game. Great teams do what they have to do to move on.”