If one thing has been a constant for the Canfield softball team this season, it has been its incredible team defense.
The Lady Cardinals prided themselves on a Saran Wrap-tight infield and a speedy, athletic outfield. That defensive prowess powered the Lady Cards all the way to a district championship. Unfortunately, the one thing that carried the Cardinals all year failed them in the regional semifinals. Numerous miscues in the field foiled Canfield's quest for a trip to the Division II Final Four. Due in part to that subpar fielding, Navarre Fairless nudged the Cardinals out of the playoffs 6-2 on May 29 in Akron.
"It wasn't our best team out there," said Canfield head coach Ray Melewski succinctly a few hours after the game.
Coach Melewski had the feeling he was watching an imposter version of his ladies right from the outset of the contest. Fairless' leadoff hitter Kelly Hysong slammed a game-opening triple and, as she was heading into third base, Canfield's attempt at throwing Hysong out went sailing past her. That unreliable relay enabled the Lady Falcons to forge ahead 1-0. It also gave Melewski reason to blow off some steam.
"We had a play (at third base) and we threw it away," said the coach sounding aggravated. "You can't make mistakes like that (in a game this big). We had a couple of other errors too."
Perhaps the biggest error Canfield made all game was stepping into the batter's box against Hysong. Not only did the Falcon pitcher cause havoc on the base paths, but she was also controlling the Cardinals from the pitching circle. She would strike out eight of Canfield's first 10 hitters en route to a complete game, 11-K outing. Although Hysong looked strong all day long, Melewski felt as if his team had a window of opportunity to make Hysong sing a sad song, but it didn't fully capitalize.
"(Hysong) proved she was a good pitcher versus (Akron) Springfield (in Fairless' district championship)," Melewski noted, "but we started feeling better about ourselves in the fourth inning. She looked like she was getting tired and started missing her spots."
Melewski's girls finally hit their own spots in the bottom of the sixth inning. Trailing 4-0, Canfield got a double by Rachael Tinkey that scored Sydney Opladen. Abby Baker then tallied Tinkey with a hit to make the score 4-2. Alas, Fairless was fearless of Canfield's comeback and added two more runs in the top of the seventh to put the Cardinals' season on ice. Still, the way his club collected it and forced home a couple runs made Melewski smile.
"We showed some heart," the coach announced. "That's what good teams are made of."
Good teams are also made up of good leaders and Canfield had four seniors who exemplified leadership every time they took the diamond. Alexa Schmidt, Kayley Keller, Baker and Opladen all played their final high school games last Wednesday and afterwards, their coach let them know how special they were.
"I was very proud of their hard work and effort," Melewski bragged. "I'll miss Baker's pitching and Schmidt, Keller and Opladen for their defense."
That hard work Melewski alluded to was not just put forth by the graduates either. There is no way the Cardinals could have corralled an 18-9 record and an All American Conference crown without contributions from the whole team.
"We beat Poland three times, won a district (championship) and did better than last year," explained Melewski happily. "We got to the next level, now its time for the younger kids to go to another next level."
Since players such as Tinkey, Lynnae Whitehead, Darby Cockrell and Kara Rothbauer will only be juniors next season it is likely that that level will be pretty high. Ali Prologo and Liz Raber will return as seniors next spring and fabulous freshman catcher Amelia Manenti should almost certainly skip a sophomore slump. This returning cast has coach Melewski marveling at his team's outlook.
"We have a good young crew coming up," he said. "Our sophomore class is very strong. And we've talked about the group coming up behind them for two years now."
The heartbreaking way this season ended has Canfield's bench boss even more eager to start 2014, but not before reminiscing one last time about 2013.
"I'm going to miss going to the ballpark and seeing these kids everyday," Melewski said solemnly, "but that's softball."