The Poland softball team's quest for back-to-back state championships has started out perfectly.
Perfect as in the type of game superstar senior starting pitcher Erin Gabriel threw in the Lady Bulldogs' Division II tournament opening 19-0 whitewash of Marlington on May 11. Gabriel only needed five innings to make the Marlington girls yell mercy in that affair. She struck out 14 of the 15 hitters she faced to propel Poland's defense of its state crown.
Gabriel would actually use seven innings a few days later in the district semifinal against West Branch. The result, however, was the same. Gabriel no-hit the Lady Warriors in a 9-0 shutout. She "only" struck out 11 Warriors, but that was good enough to get her team a district showdown with arch rival Canfield.
Town Crier file photo by Mike Capps
For four innings of that championship game played in Alliance on May 16, Gabriel was up to her old tournament tricks declawing the Lady Cardinals on zero hits. Then in the fifth inning the unthinkable happened. Canfield's Rachel Tinkey cracked a single! Of course, by the time that happened, Poland already owned a seven-run lead and the defending Ohio Player of the Year was on her way to fanning 15 Cardinal hitters. Just to prove she is human, Gabriel surrendered a run late in the game, but the Bulldogs still captured their fourth consecutive district championship, 8-1. Poland defeated its nemesis three times this year and has now beaten the kids from Canfield nine consecutive times. Most, if not all of those wins, were because of the right arm of Gabriel.
"(Gabriel's) pitching is very good," said Poland head coach Reid Lamport. "It's not something we've never seen before. We expect it from her. Every time she enters that pitching circle she expects to win."
That same sentiment can be said about this Poland squad. Four straight district titles and two consecutive trips to the state finals will do that to a team. Despite all of that recent success, coach Lamport is still convinced that his girls never take anything for granted.
"(Winning) is never old hat or humdrum," Lamport insisted. "It's pretty exciting. The girls are very excited. It's also nice to beat Canfield three times."
Lamport's ladies must be used to doing things in threes this season. They scored three times off Canfield starter Sarah Vrabel in the first inning last Wednesday. Marissa Trevis and Jenna Modic had singles and scored runs in that stalwart first frame. Kalie Benson later bombed a three-run triple. Benson would finish the day with two doubles and four RBIs. The Bulldogs would build on that lead with another three-run inning in the, you guessed it, third inning. Maura Bobby's bunt single enabled her to get on base and score a run in the fourth. Benson's second double knocked in the last of the Bulldogs' eight runs an inning later.
Benson was batting in runs in the win over West Branch too. Poland, naturally, scored three runs in their first at bat thanks to that RBI by Benson and one ribbie each by Modic and Taylor Miokovic. Miokovic would add another RBI to her total later in the game and finish with, needless to say, three doubles. The Bulldogs would batter West Branch with 15 hits. All of that offense has certainly made Gabriel relaxed in the circle and that has subsequently made her almost unbeatable.
"Our pitch selection has been great," explained Lamport about the hitting surge. "Patience at the plate has been important too. We hit the ball hard, even the ones that don't fall in."
Now the 24-2 Lady Dogs hope not to fall in the regional round of the tournament. Poland will not play until May 24 when it meets Peninsula Woodridge. Thanks to the easy way they disposed of Canfield, Poland's girls were given the following day off from practice. That off time made them happy, but not playing any real games has the Bulldogs disturbed.
"We will try to pick up a game at the beginning of the week," said Lamport last Friday. We hate to be off a week. The key is to stay fresh and stay focused."
Another key is to keep Erin Gabriel healthy and happy in the middle of the pitching circle. If that happens then the Bulldogs will have a great chance to do something else in threes. That is advance to the Final Four for the third year in a row.