Over the past couple of years, a lot of the fun of covering high school softball has been discovering unheralded teams on the rise.
Last year's treasure was Cheryl Weaver's Champion Golden Flashes, which won the Trumbull Athletic Conference and then bulldozed through the Division III district and regional tournaments to earn a state berth.
Weaver tipped us off to one of this year's finds: LaBrae. The Vikings gave the Golden Flashes fits in their two first two meetings, once forcing the Flashes to nine innings.
Both times, Champion won one-run games.
As LaBrae coach Chad Kiser says, "If we can play with Champion, we can play with anyone in the state."
Possible rematch had Champion's attention
As sectional play was getting under way, Weaver acknowledged it was possible that the Flashes and Vikings could meet again if LaBrae could get past Steel Valley Conference champion Ursuline.
On May 10, the Vikings edged the Irish, 2-1, to launch a nine-game winning streak they are taking with them to Ashland Friday for the state semifinals.
Along the way, the Vikings have eliminated three teams with at least 20 wins (Champion, 24-2; Newton Falls, 20-5; and Wellington, 22-7) and one with 19 (Mooney, 19-10) to earn the school's first state trip.
"We worked our butts off to get here as a team," LaBrae junior pitcher-catcher Lindsey Higgins said. "It's gonna be so good [to go to state]. It's gonna be so much fun.
"This [regional] was fun but to win state, how great would that be?" Higgins said.
Higgins and her twin Stepfanie are playing despite being shaken up in automobile accident about a month ago. Stepfanie has recovered but Lindsey has a lingering problem with her collarbone that has doctors puzzled.
LaBrae next faces29-2 Sycamore Mohawk
Friday, Kiser's Vikings (15-6) face their biggest test -- Sycamore Mohawk (29-2). Here's hoping they have two more strong games left in the tank.
The other program that was so enjoyable to watch this spring was the revival of Fitch led by first-year varsity coach Melody Rice.
On April 26, the Falcons rallied from a 4-0 deficit in the fifth inning to defeat Federal League rival Boardman (the gold standard of area Division I teams) in eight innings.
After the game, we learned that the Falcons were searching for respectability after a 1-21 season in 2004. Imagine how easy it would have been to quit after losing every game but one.
Credit goes to the seniors -- pitcher Jen Purnell, third baseman Andrea Lucente and left fielder Bre Alleman -- for setting an example.
"We have a very good team and we had a great season," said Rice, who grew up in Boardman and played for Spartans coach Bill Amero. "I am very proud of the seniors and the turnaround they've had -- they made a statement and definitely we will be back. They've definitely set the tone for us."
The Falcons finished 7-7 in the Federal League but swept Boardman in the regular season and eliminated the Spartans in the sectional tournament with a 2-0 victory. Junior shortstop Nicole Smaldino's sixth-inning homer was the difference.
After a 2-0 win over Solon in the district semifinals, the Falcons rallied from a 4-0 deficit by scoring 10 times in the fifth and sixth innings to defeat Canfield in the district final, 10-9.
Unexpected successended in Akron
The Falcons' magic ride ended in the regional semifinals where Federal rival Uniontown Lake (perhaps the best team in the state) won, 11-1.
"I keep saying that it's been unbelievable, but I've got to retract those statements -- it's very believable," Rice said of the Falcons' turnaround. "These girls have been working since last summer. And they showed commitment and heart.
"We have a lot of freshmen in our lineup and a lot of girls on our junior varsity and freshmen teams who look up to these freshmen who earned a district medal. They know what it's like to be in a winning program and what's expected of them. I expect great things from them in the future." Alleman and Lucente have chosen not to continue playing softball in college, but Purnell (15-9) thinks Division II Gannon University in Erie, Pa., is her next stop.
"I figure I can graduate in four years there," said Purnell, who is considering law or dentistry as majors. "They have a very solid softball program there, making it all the way to the regionals this year. They have no seniors, so everyone will be returning."
The Falcons and Vikings were a blast to cover this spring. We're looking forward to meeting 2006's discovery.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter with The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.