The town is Mason, Ohio, population 29,000, way down south in Warren County.
If you think of it at all, you probably think of Kings Island, the amusement park you can see from Interstate 71 just north of Cincinnati.
You almost certainly don’t think of high school softball.
Well, the time has come for that to change. The kind of magic one normally associates with theme parks like Kings Island seems to have rubbed off on the local high school softball team.
Mason’s improbable and enigmatic Comets finished the regular season 12-14. But somehow they’ll make their first appearance in a Division I Final Four today owning a dubious distinction. They have the worst record — now 17-14 — of any team ever to qualify for a state semifinal in the 30-year history of Ohio’s state tournament.
“I don’t know what it is with this team, but they never quit fighting,” said Comets coach Brian Castner.
He also said he didn’t know who his leading hitter is.
“But we’re getting a good job out of the No. 3 spot,” Castner said.
In Mason’s regional final game with Clayton Northmont, the No. 3 spot belonged to senior pitcher Carly Miller. She didn’t figure in the Comets’ game-deciding sixth-inning rally. But she struck out 13.
But it all boils down to two words: so what? There’s no need to dwell on the Comets’ record or the players’ individual performances. At this point, it’s all meaningless.
The unranked, unheralded Comets are good enough to carry their ho-hum record into Ashland’s Brookside Park at 12:30 p.m. today against Elyria. The top-ranked Pioneers (29-3) are the defending state runners-up. They won each of their district and regional tournament games by a single run, two in extra innings.
On the line is a shot at the Division I state championship at 3 p.m. Saturday against either Hudson (26-3) or Pickerington Central (25-4). They meet in a semifinal at 10 a.m. today. Hudson’s Explorers shocked defending state champion North Canton Hoover, 2-0, in the Akron regional final.
Elyria advanced to the state championship game last spring with just three seniors. Pioneer fans expected a lot of this year’s team, mainly because all the starters returned from the 2006 squad.
“I don’t like thinking about my high school career yet,” said center fielder Kristin Sito, who will play her final game in Pioneers’ red-and-white either today or Saturday.
“It’s not over yet, and maybe if I started thinking about it I wouldn’t be as focused or something,” she said. “But hopefully if we get these next two games, whatever happens either way, I just know I’m going to be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s over.’ It went so fast.
“Even though when I think back, ‘Oh, man that’s such a long time ago, freshman year,’ it’s not really that long ago and I have so many memories,” Sito said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m never going to play with all these girls again, and we’ve been playing together our whole lives.”
Sito, who batted .365 as a junior, carries a .357 batting average into the state semifinal with two doubles, two triples, two home runs and 15 RBIs. Her seventh-inning, fence-clearing home run in the Clyde regional final changed the nature of the game with Strongsville and made an extra inning possible. Elyria won, 5-4, in eight innings.
The winning run was driven home by senior shortstop Andrea Nagy, one of the state’s premier shortstops and a leader on the state runner-up team in 2006. She’s batting .392 going into this afternoon’s game with four doubles, four triples and four home runs and 21 runs batted in. Nagy has earned a softball scholarship to Division I Cleveland State.
“It’s really good to know we’re going back to state,” she said. “We were second in the state last year and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you’re going back to state this year.’ But every game, every pitch, every inning there’s a chance we might not win this year.”
Still, Nagy is confident. But she’s not deceived by the fact Mason finished with a sub-.500 regular season.
“That’s weird,” said Nagy. “Somebody said that their starting pitcher was hurt at the beginning of the year, which would make some sense. But we can’t even look at their record. We have to expect them to be a really good team and they’re trying to beat us.”
In the great scheme of things, where have the four years gone?
“I just can’t believe that this is the last week of my high-school softball,” said first baseman Andrea Stolarski. “I hope we have two more games and everything, because that would just complete it. It’s been so much fun. And I believe we can do it. I’m excited right now.”
Stolarski carries a .234 batting average with two doubles, three triples and a dozen RBIs into the semifinal matchup with Mason. She’ll attend the University of Toledo, where she’ll be a pre-pharmacy major.
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Division I semifinal
WHO: No. 1 Elyria (29-3) vs. Mason (17-14)
WHERE: Brookside Park, Ashland
RADIO: WEOL 930-AM
STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE
Elyria seniors (left to right) Andrea Stolarski, Andrea Nagy and Kristin Sito are thinking about winning a state title and not the end of their high school careers.