By Ryan Buck
Akron’s Firestone Park should seriously consider giving the Mahoning Valley its own locker room underneath the venerable softball stadium, or at least a cozy parking space just beyond the dugout.
One year after Poland nearly laid claim to the Little League Central Region Junior Softball title, the 13-14 girls from Canfield will look to finish the job.
Canfield will begin pool play in the nine-team tournament with two games Saturday in what coach Kerry Durkin hopes is a journey bound for the Junior Softball World Series in Kirkland, Wash.
The team is built on years of success at lower levels. Canfield was two runs away from a trip to the 11-12 World Series last summer, when they fell to the Indiana state champions.
“The core of this group, a lot of these girls were on that team,” Durkin said.
After working for several years to topple Poland to win its district, Canfield emerged as a state power.
Canfield ran through the state tournament in Englewood, outscoring opponents 31-1, including a 10-0 win over Lucasville in the final. This comes one year after nearly running the table in the regional tournament after an opening-game loss.
“It’s skills — they’re athletic, they have fundamentals and they have heart,” Durkin said. “Sometimes you don’t know what you have in a team until we get in a bad situation.”
Durkin, who has coached the nucleus of this team for two years, struggles to find faults with his team.
“We have four solid, really good pitchers,” he said. “We’re not beholden to just one pitcher.”
A nearly infallible defense complements them.
“We didn’t make an error in the state tournament and I think we only made one in the districts,” Durkin said. “The fact that there isn’t a weak point is, I guess, our strong point.”
Durkin has emphasized concentration on one game at a time.
“I tell the girls if they play their game and don’t look too far ahead, we’ll be fine,” he said. “Nothing good will happen unless you execute on Saturday morning.”
Canfield will face off with teams from Grandview, Iowa, Zionsville, Ind., and Milwaukee, Wis., in National Division pool play. The state champions from Kentucky, Missouri, Michigan, and Illinois are in the American Division, along with another Ohio team.
Elyria, the tournament host, has seen Canfield before. Elyria beat Canfield in the 10-11 state tournament two years ago, rebounding from a semifinal loss to win the title game.
Poland fell in last year’s regional championship game to Escanaba, Mich., 3-1.