Mathews back in regional semifinal

VIENNA – The Mathews Mustangs softball team might be thinking about taking sleeping bags and enough food to stay a few days when they head to Kent today.

The trip to the softball facility at Kent State University for the Division IV regional tournament is almost like returning home for the Mustangs. Their semifinal game today at 5 p.m. will mark their fourth straight regional appearance and what they hope will be a second consecutive qualification for the state tournament.

Before making plans for state, the Mustangs will have to deal with the Cuyahoga Heights Redskins today and possibly the winner of Thursday’s Jackson Milton-Colonel Crawford semifinal in the final Saturday at noon.

“All these girls during the school season – plus the summer season (we have a lot that play travel ball) – embrace it,” Mustangs coach Jim Nicula said. “They love the sunken dugouts at Kent. It’s like a second home to them.”

Nicula is counting on experience to play a key factor against the Redskins (28-2). The Mustangs know what is needed to win at the regional level, while the Redskins, who start several sophomores, haven’t been tested beyond the districts.

“They’re a young team,” Nicula said. “They’re very athletic. They seem to put the ball in play very well. Their pitcher is solid. She hasn’t been hammered by anybody this year. They will be a formidable opponent. They played Stow and Geneva and scrimmaged Walsh Jesuit and fared decent in those games.”

As is always the case in softball, the success of thpitcher usually dictates how far a team progresses. The Redskins are set well in that area with junior Meridith Chopka, who’s not overpowering but has good control.

“From what I’ve heard she’s very precise,” Nicula said. “She has a decent fastball, but she won’t overpower you like some pitchers can. She has great location, which is huge. She doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. She throws fastballs and changeups where she wants them. She doesn’t give up a lot of walks, and that’s big.”

Chopka will have to be at her best to match Mustangs sophomore pitcher Cheyenne Eggens. Eggens has a 0.43 earned-run average in 164 innings worked. She’s struck out 314 batters and walked 11.

Eggens has improved as the season has progressed. She pitched a pair of one-hitters in district wins over Windham and Bristol.

“She seems to be hitting her stride toward the end of the year,” Nicula said. “A little has to do with the heat. She likes it hot. Her fastball has really been smoking. It seems like she’s picked up a few mph. Her location has been awesome. She’s kept batters off balance with pitch location and speed.”

Nicula will be counting heavily on seniors Tabby Granelly, Jessica Marsico, Jackie Rhine and Holly Shreves. Marsico has a .408 batting average. Granelly is hitting .315 from the leadoff spot. Rhine is hitting .278 and Shreves has a .272 average.

Sophomore Maddie Williams leads in batting with a .415 average. Eggens checks in with a .330 average.

“I think we have the potential to be (a) great (hitting team),” Nicula said. “I don’t think we’ve put it together where everybody is hitting as a team. We put the ball in play and are able to get on base. A lot of pitchers try to pitch around us.

“We get a lot of walks and hit batters. We try to stand in there. If they throw it inside, we’ll hit it or you’ll hit us. We don’t strike out a lot as a team.”

Nicula believes an important factor in the Mustangs’ 22-7 record is the family atmosphere among the players.

“They go to each others’ houses to eat together,” Nicula said. “There are no dissension or attitude problems.”