Coach Bill Amero made sure his players were primed for the tournament grind.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
BOARDMAN -- The road the Boardman High softball team has taken to get back to the state tournament in Ashland hasn't been an easy one.
Manager Bill Amero, whose Spartans (28-3) will play Hilliard Davidson (29-3) in Thursday's Division I semifinal game, scheduled as many highly-ranked teams as possible.
"And we've had a lot of adversity thrown our way," said Amero, referring to roster challenges created by academic ineligibility, illness and injuries.
"I just put together the toughest schedule I could find," Amero said. "I didn't look at it that our won-loss record might be at risk; I looked at it as an opportunity to make us a better team. And the kids seemed to look forward to the challenging schedule."
A closer look: In addition to games against their Steel Valley Conference opponents, the Spartans played several Saturday doubleheaders, inviting highly-rated teams to the Field of Dreams complex.
Among those were North Allegheny, Tallmadge, Akron Manchester, Conneaut and Walsh Jesuit.
The Spartans remain unbeaten against Ohio teams -- their three losses were to teams from Pennsylvania (North Allegheny), Florida (Miami Gulliver Prep) and Illinois (Chicago Carl Sandberg).
Amero said the strong competition has made a difference.
"You're not going to win tough, close tournament games like the ones we had against North Canton Hoover and Kent unless you've played in them in the regular season," he said.
In the district final, the Spartans needed 10 innings to get past Kent Roosevelt. Then, in the regional final on Saturday, Gina Rango's two-run homer led Boardman to a 3-2 victory over Cuyahoga Falls.
Veteran players: The Spartans will rely on senior pitcher Marissa Bartholomew (19-2 0.97 earned-run average).
Four other starters from last year's state championship game will be in the Spartans lineup Thursday: Rango, a third baseman; shortstop Mary McCabe; outfielder Laura Amero, and first baseman Jennifer Feret. Feret is a sophomore, the others are juniors.
Rango returned to the Boardman lineup about eight games into the season after she received medical clearness to play. Because of a blood illness, Rango was home-schooled from November until after spring break.
Moving into the starting lineup this season were sophomore outfielders Audrey Martinko and Jennifer Pancake, and sophomore catcher Meghan Hovanic, who was on the junior varsity team until midseason.
The other starter from last year, second baseman Amanda Ford, broke her ankle when a baserunner slid into her while she was playing catcher in the eighth game of the season.
Ford had taken over behind the plate after another player was ruled academically ineligible. Freshman Jaclyn Corroto took over for Ford at second base.
"We've played great as a team this year," Rango said. "We've really come together. We've really worked hard to get where we are."
Amero will use sophomore Pam Prystash or freshman Krysta Sylvester as the designated hitter for Hovanic.
"[Hovanic] has enough to worry about on defense and she uses the time we are batting to go over the opponents' tendencies," Bill Amero said.
Opponent: Hilliard Davidson defeated Hilliard Darby 1-0 last Saturday to win the Columbus regional.
If the Spartans are disappointed they won't get a rematch against the defending state champion, they aren't showing it.
"To me, it doesn't matter," Bill Amero said. "We played them one time, so it's not like we had a big rivalry started. And Darby had so many seniors on their team last year that it wouldn't be the same team anyhow.
"Of course, some of the girls may feel differently."
Bill Amero said the tournament games his team experienced the past three springs -- they've won the district championship all three years, with two regional titles -- has made a big difference.
"We've been here before; we know what's it like," he said. "At first, I thought it wasn't a big deal, but when you leave here, it is a big deal. You have to go through it once.
"Any team that goes all the way and wins on the first shot, I give them credit. It's just not easy."