The Spartans have shut out 15 of 32 opponents this season.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
ASHLAND -- As powerful as the Boardman High softball team's offense can be, it's the Spartans' defense that has triggered their second consecutive trip to the Division I state championship game.
"Our defense has been playing really well lately," Boardman manager Bill Amero said. "It's really been keeping us in some games."
In 32 games, the Spartans have shut out their opponents 15 times. Two of them have come at the regional and state semifinal level.
Leading the way: Leading the Spartans has been senior pitcher Marissa Bartholomew (20-2), who will play at Mercyhurst College next year.
"Marissa pitched a great game," Amero said of the only senior starter in his lineup after Thursday's victory over Hilliard Davidson. "We didn't throw a whole lot of fastballs -- it was basically, drops, change-ups and rises.
"I knew they were a pretty good hitting team, so I decided we would throw a lot of drops and make them pound the ball into the ground."
Bartholomew struck out seven and retired nine others on ground ball outs.
"Her drop is probably her best pitch," Amero said. "Her catcher, Meghan Hovanic, did a great job working inside and outside, and Marissa hit the spots."
Hovanic, a sophomore, began the year on the Spartans' junior varsity, but was promoted after an injury forced Amero to make adjustments.
Tough early: Thursday, Bartholomew allowed only one Davidson batter to reach base in the first four innings. Four of the first eight Wildcats' batters took called third strikes.
Bartholomew said she felt less pressure after the Spartans scored the game's only run in the fourth inning.
"I was calm the whole time but when we got that first run, it was a relief," she said. "I knew that if we got at least one run, we'd be all right as long as we played strong defense."
Bartholomew received another lift in the fifth inning when the defense helped preserve the shutout after the Wildcats had runners at first and second with one out.
Right fielder Audrey Martinko and first baseman Jennifer Feret teamed up with Hovanic and third baseman Gina Rango for a double play, which included a rundown putout at third.
"I saw that girl come off the bag and I knew that if Feret throws it, she's [out]," Bartholomew said. "She was so far off. It looked like to me that she had run halfway down to see what we were going to do, to see if Feret would throw it or not."
Pep talks: Between pitches, Bartholomew never has time to feel lonely, thanks to visits and pep talks by Rango and junior shortstop Mary McCabe.
"They tell me things like 'nice pitch' or 'you're on' or 'go get 'em,' " Bartholomew said. "I like when they visit."
Saturday at 10 a.m., Bartholomew will welcome Rango and McCabe to the mound for the final time in her high school career.