No one expected the Bulldogs to get this far, except themselves.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
ASHLAND -- Most of Ohio never expected the Poland High softball team to reach the state tournament. Except the Bulldogs.
"We've been underdogs the whole time just because we're a pretty young team -- just three starting seniors," said Poland senior catcher Suzanne Olesko, joined in the lineup by fellow upperclassmen Heidi Kimmel at first base and Jio Toppi in the outfield. Senior outfielder Lisa Hardy is also on the Bulldogs' roster.
"We were underrated, and I think we opened some eyes today," Olesko said.
That was the consolation in Poland's 1-0, 11-inning loss to Lima Bath in the Division II championship Sunday at Brookside Park.
"We were the longshots to be in this thing, but I think our schedule lent itself to us being in a game like this," Poland coach Reid Lamport said.
California trip: In addition to its Metro Athletic Conference schedule, the Bulldogs played four games during a spring-break trip to California.
"We were saying 'San Diego-to-state' the whole season," Toppi said. "That was our goal, and we made it."
Poland went 2-2 during its west-coast trip, with wins over Santana (1-0) and Sierra (4-3) and losses against University City (9-5) and Mount Miguel (4-2).
"We played well sporadically for a while," Lamport said. "The California trip gave our girls an opportunity to see that they can play with anybody."
But the path to Ashland wasn't taken without some growing pains along the way.
"As silly as it sounds, our two losses in the MAC [to Howland and Struthers] were about the best thing that could have happened to us," Olesko said.
"It's hard for a team to go undefeated all year, but the losses really opened our eyes," she said. "We began to work together."
The game that supported Poland's claim as a team to contend with came in the district championship against Tallmadge. The Bulldogs eliminated their tradition-rich opponent 4-1.
"We came together that game, and we played like I've never seen us play," Kimmel said. "It was so emotional for us, and we rode on those emotions."
Lamport said, "The win over Tallmadge in the district really gave us some impetus and kind of springboarded us into the regionals."
After their loss Sunday, Poland players had tears in their eyes. Still, most were able to put the game into perspective.
"Just being here with these girls was so special," said Kimmel, who will continue her softball career at Westminster College. "I couldn't pick 16 other girls that I would want to come with me. We've become so close this year, and I'll never forget them."
Lamport said, "This means a lot to our program -- the fact that we've been here and we've tasted it.
"We've got a lot of these girls [next year], so we're going to do our best to get back into this thing."