For what has seemed like an eternity, the Poland Lady Bulldogs have had a stranglehold on its district in softball.
Canfield's softball squad, conversely, has had very good teams yet never good enough to put an end to Poland's remarkable run. That all changed last Friday afternoon in Alliance. Abby Baker whipped up a five-hit shutout and the Lady Cardinals scored a pair of runs in the third and fifth innings to bump off the Lady Bulldogs 4-0 and capture the district championship. Any time a Canfield club is able to outlast its archrival from Poland it is special, but when a championship is the reward, it becomes so much sweeter.
"It's good that we beat Poland twice (in the regular season)," said an elated Canfield head coach Ray Melewski over the phone. "To beat them in the district championship is a great feeling - especially since they knocked us out last year."
Photos by Mike Capps, Town Crier correspondent
Senior pitcher Abby Baker stays focused the entire game as she leads her team to victory against Poland in the Division II district championship held at Alliance High School on May 24. Canfield beat Poland 4-0 with a strong defense.
In fact, the last time a Canfield softball squad won a district title was in 2008. The Lady Bulldogs began their dominance the following season. Part of that great play by Poland was because pitcher Erin Gabriel gobbled up all of her opponents from the circle. Well, Baker did her best Gabriel imitation versus Poland in the finals. Aside from only allowing five hits, Canfield's spectacular senior slinger stymied the Bulldogs with six strikeouts. She improved her record to 15-7, but she may not be done winning before she graduates.
"(Baker) is not dominant, but she hits her spots," explained Melewski. "She gets a lot of ground balls and pop ups. She is so on her game right now."
The only runs Canfield would need to score came in the third when Sydney Opladen knocked in a run with a single. The Lady Cards would add another run that inning thanks to a Kayley Keller RBI double. Opladen would score for a second time in the fifth frame to make it 3-0. Rachel Tinkey also tallied to give the Cardinals their final 4-0 advantage.
With the offense getting timely hits and Baker balling on the bump, the only thing left to make Canfield's afternoon perfect against Poland was its defense. As coach Melewski mentioned, Baker was able to coax Poland into putting the ball in play. Diving and spinning acts by infielders Tinkey and Alexa Schmidt aided Baker in her beautiful effort.
"Our defense was a key," Melewski announced. "You expect a team like Poland to hit the ball, so you have to make the plays. Schmidt made a couple of great ones at second base."
Baker not only pitched incredibly in the district semifinal against Hubbard a day earlier, but she also bashed a triple that started a rally in the bottom of the fifth. She would score on an RBI double by Kara Rothbauer to break a scoreless tie that Canfield eventually won 2-0. In a game that was so close on the scoreboard, it was appropriate that a defensive play may have been the difference. An inning after the Cardinals broke the ice offensively, the Lady Eagles were in position to retie the score. With two outs and a runner on second base, Hubbard got a base hit that was headed towards Rothbauer in the outfield. The superb sophomore scooped up the softball and threw a dart to catcher Amelia Manenti. Manenti secured the ball and extemporaneously placed the tag on the Eagle runner who was soaring towards home plate. That out propelled Canfield into the district final.
On Wednesday, the 18-8 Lady Redbirds went to battle with 24-4 Navarre Fairless. The Fairless Lady Falcons are historically a tough out in the tournament, but they needed a little luck to advance to the regional semis. A botched play on a sacrifice bunt in the eleventh inning allowed the Falcons to score the winning run in a 2-1 win over Akron Springfield in their district championship. Canfield has gone 2-0 against teams nicknamed the Falcons (Fitch) this year, but did not have as much success versus Springfield.
"The Springfield team (Navarre Fairless) beat was a good team," Melewski said this past Monday. "They beat us at the Wendy's Classic. (Navarre Fairless) is a good program, but we know all teams are at their best this time of the year. We better come ready to play our game."
A win on Wednesday would place Canfield up against either Walsh Jesuit or Geneva on May 30.