The Keystone Wildcats have spent the last 10 months traveling the country, hitting the weight room and refining their skills all in search of one more win.
Keystone, which is ranked 20th in the nation in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Softball Rankings, has eight starters returning from last year’s team that lost to Poland Seminary 4-0 in the Division II state championship game.
Led by a pair of senior Division II first-team All-Ohio players in infielder Erin Pond and pitcher Kenzie Conrad and senior infielder Alisha Silva, a second-team All-Ohio pick, the Wildcats have been busy preparing for the start of the 2012 season with high hopes of bringing home the third state championship in school history.
If the Wildcats fail in their championship quest it won’t be because they didn’t work hard enough.
More photos below.
Following the loss in the state final, Pond spent most of the summer traveling the country playing summer ball with a New Jersey-based team that competed in numerous tournaments in California and the Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
“It was a great experience to play against players from across the country but I was excited to get back home and get ready for this season,” Pond said. “We’ve all been working on building muscle and staying strong in the offseason. Since practice started we treat every ground ball and every drill like it’s the bottom of the seventh inning of the state championship game.”
Pond and Conrad tied for the team lead in home runs last season with nine as Keystone broke a state record with 34. Pond also led the team in runs scored (53), hits (55) and was second with a .539 batting average.
Silva led the Wildcats, hitting at a .563 clip.
Wildcats coach Jim Piazza, who has amassed a 253-34 record in nine seasons at Keystone, including going 32-2 a year ago, said he was already thinking about ways to improve his team for this season on the bus ride back home from last year’s final game.
“As good as our offense was last season I thought we started to get weaker as the season wound down, so I thought we needed to work on our athleticism,” Piazza said. “You can hit balls every day and work on your batting or pitch every day to improve your pitching but you need that athleticism to stay consistent and strong all season.”
With that in mind, the Wildcats have been training with certified personal trainer Joe Bockmore at Inner Circle Personal Fitness in Wellington to improve their strength and conditioning. That strength training already began to pay dividends when Keystone blasted seven home runs in a pair of scrimmages against Cloverleaf and Twinsburg on March 17.
“We’re all so competitive, we push each other to work hard,” senior Bri Buckley said. “Every practice we do everything with a purpose. We work on our bat speed, situational hitting and pitch selection. We know we’re one of the hardest-working teams around.”
Pond said that she actually looks forward to practices just as much as games.
“Some kids don’t like to practice and I don’t get that,” Pond said. “I was so excited the day of our first practice. I could not wait to get started.”
According to Pond, much of the credit for the Wildcats’ work ethic goes to their coach.
“Mr. Piazza is a huge part of everything we do,” she said. “I would not be the player I am today without him. He means the world to me. So much of what we do we do for him.”
While the batters were busy bulking up for the upcoming season, Conrad was trying to improve her performance in the pitching circle — a nearly impossible feat considering she was 22-2 with a 0.98 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .156 batting average.
“Even when I was getting ready for basketball season, I pitched with my dad, Mike Conrad, a couple of times a week,” Conrad said. “Every time I practice I’m looking for that one thing that I can do to help us get that one more win.”
Conrad also said she is excited to get the season under way.
“I was extremely happy to get out here and start practicing,” she said. “I’m just living in the moment. I don’t feel any pressure at all.”
The unseasonably warm and dry weather has allowed the ’Cats to do something they weren’t able to do at all last season — practice outdoors on their home field.
“We’re really ahead of where we were last season, especially defensively,” Piazza said. “Our outfielders have been able to catch a lot of fly balls and we’ve been able to do a lot of work with the infielders that you just can’t do inside.”
Keystone will kick off its season Monday when it travels to Lutheran West.
Even though the current crop of Wildcats have won a regional championship, three district championships and 30 consecutive Patriot Athletic Conference games, Piazza won’t let their past successes get to their heads.
“I remind them they’re just the third best team in Keystone history right now,” he said. “The 1999 and 2006 teams won state championships. That helps them stay focused on the task at hand.”
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.