Ursuline believes softball dreams
This is a story about Steel Valley Conference softball.
But it's not about Boardman High, the defending Division I state champion. It's not about tradition-rich Austintown Fitch, nor about Cardinal Mooney, which recently completed a stellar season.
It's about Ursuline, a first-year coach and a group of players who have pulled off something many would have deemed impossible at one time.
For the first time in school history, Ursuline has reached the regional tournament in softball.
The Irish have done it with first-year coach Mike Kernan, a freshman pitcher and a bunch of believers.
Meet Kernan, the 36-year-old former All-City quarterback at Chaney; the flag football standout whose teams have been recognized nationally; Ursuline's new coach who reels off quotable lines such as, "I'm a guy who fell out of a tree and there happened to be a softball laying there. What do I know about softball?"
Apparently enough to lead Ursuline into uncharted territory.
"I'm just the type of person that doesn't like to lose," said Kernan, Ursuline's third head coach in four years. "I take things seriously. I know what it takes to be successful."
Kernan, who was asked by his niece, Shawn Iman, to take over the team, is no strategic softball guru. He does, however, pride himself on his players doing the little things right.
Maybe most important, though, is the confidence he shows in them, the potential he saw in them during the tough times, when maybe they didn't see it.
Kernan would see his team play soundly for part of a game and then fall apart. But he focused on the positives.
"I remember sitting there, saying, 'You guys might think I'm a downright idiot. I still see a team that's capable of playing like this,' " he recalled of the good moments.
At times, those words may have been hard for his players to believe. That's understandable when you play the Irish's strong SVC schedule.
"It was discouraging at times," Kernan said. "I saw the discouragement in the girls faces."
Young arm; strong foundation
As the season progressed, so did the Irish. So did a freshman pitcher named Maureen Cearfoss (11-12), who has pitched in every game this season.
Kernan was irked by the words on a web site before the season that said Ursuline didn't have enough pitching. Then Cearfoss emerged.
"Without Maureen Cearfoss, we'd be nothing," Kernan said. "Whether we made an error or she got hit, the poise she had was incredible."
It also has taken the talents of third baseman Meghan Marenkovic, center-fielder Shaina Drummond, catcher Ali Vitello, left-fielder Iman and the rest of the Irish who dot the small roster.
Kernan remembers the first time he looked at the roster, saw the names "Marenkovic," "Drummond," "Vitello" and "Iman" and initially thought of their athletic ability. He saw the foundation.
Four tournament wins later -- over Campbell, Maplewood, Grand Valley and Champion for the district title -- and that foundation is looking pretty strong.
To be continued
Maybe the most intriguing aspect of Ursuline's remarkable season is this: It's not finished.
The Irish will attempt to keep its dream season alive in a Division III regional semifinal Thursday against St. Thomas Aquinas at Massillon's Genshaft Park.
Kernan told his girls they were good enough to win district. Lately, he's been telling them more, but the message has stayed the same.
"Now," he said, "you're good enough to do better than that."
XBrian Richesson covers high school sports for The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.