LAGRANGE — A pinch of experience and a roster full of youth is not usually a recipe for success in the postseason, but it’s working out just fine for the Keystone Wildcats, who open play today in their 10th consecutive regional and their 21st in the last 22 years.
The Wildcats (25-4 and ranked third in the final Division II state poll) take on Hebron Lakewood (25-5, ranked fourth) at 5 p.m. at Bucyrus High School.
The Wildcats have only four seniors, but that’s never a concern for Jim Piazza, who is in his eighth season as coach.
“We don’t really look at the age,” he said of the team’s many underclassmen, “but what they bring is that energy, the athleticism, the hard work, so everybody continues it on and we’re looking at it as this is our last time as a group. Every year, it’s a new group. This is our last time as a group together and we want to do something special, so everybody’s taking that approach and looking at it as, ‘We’re doing it as a team.’ We’re trying to figure out what we can do and make the best of it.”
“I think everybody brings something different,” said sophomore pitcher/infielder Kenzie Conrad. “We have our seniors who lead us and everybody else just tries to get them where we all need to be. Everybody’s out there with the same goal, so it doesn’t really matter if you’re a freshman or senior. We’re all part of the same program and we all play the same way.”
That would be impressively, especially on offense. Keystone is hitting .354 as a team and has outscored its opponents 221-49.
Sophomore shortstop Erin Pond earned first-team All-Ohio accolades, in addition to first-team All-Lorain County and all-district honors. She is hitting .469 (45-for-96) with 14 doubles, three triples and three home runs. Over 44 percent of her hits have gone for extra bases.
Pond, who has scored 31 runs, driven in 33 and has a .771 slugging percentage, has enjoyed learning from the veterans on the team.
“Everybody’s doing their parts and everybody’s working hard and I think we should go pretty far,” she said. “The experience is awesome, but the youth, when you put that together with the older girls, it’s a great group. We blend really well together. Everybody’s mentally tough.
“They teach us a lot of lessons, a whole bunch of situations, what not to do and what to do. They bring a lot of leadership to the team.”
Conrad, also a sophomore, was second-team All-Ohio, going 11-2 with a 0.64 earned run average and 81 strikeouts in 66 innings. She’s also batting .419, with 27 runs scored, six doubles, three triples and three home runs. She also has a .663 slugging percentage.
“I’m just very excited about this group of kids because they work extremely hard and they have a different focus than we did last year,” Piazza said. “It’s kind of nice. We were kind of young last year and we’re still young, but that year of experience, of seeing it and doing it, has taken a big toll on us.”
Two players who have been around for multiple regional tournaments are second baseman Kim Kokoski, who leads the team with six sacrifices, and catcher Taylor Kessinger, a third-team All-Ohio selection, with a .515 on-base percentage and .322 batting average.
“We all get along really, really well and we work together,” Kokoski said. “We all play as a team. It’s nice going to regionals every time and we’ve got to make sure there’s no ‘what ifs’ or ‘if we would have done this, this would have happened.’ It’s going to be ‘Give it your all.’”
“It means a lot,” Kessinger said. “It might not seem like a big deal to everyone else because we always make it to regionals, but I still feel like it’s a big deal and a big honor to get there because it’s with this group. Last year, it wasn’t with everyone.”
The way this year’s seniors have meshed with the younger players is one of the many reasons Piazza has a good feeling going into today’s game.
“This group of seniors did a great job of keeping everybody focused game-by-game,” Piazza said. “Instead of just looking to Akron (site of the state tournament), we’re taking every game like a state championship game. That’s their approach this year and they’re doing a great job.
“I feel the program’s in the right direction. They know what we need to do, just go and play our game. We’re not worried about the opponent. We’re just worried about playing Keystone softball.”
Contact Matt Florjancic at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.