December 18, 2014

Elyria
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State softball: Pioneers, Comets are familiar foes

If it seems like deja vu in Akron about lunchtime today, it’s because you might very well have experienced it before.

Elyria High’s Mackenzie Phares takes a throw during practice Tuesday. Teammates Madison Fullmer, left, and Kaitlin Laeseke look on. The Pioneers take on Mason in the Division I state semifinals today. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

Elyria High’s Mackenzie Phares takes a throw during practice Tuesday. Teammates Madison Fullmer, left, and Kaitlin Laeseke look on. The Pioneers take on Mason in the Division I state semifinals today. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

At 12:30 p.m., third-ranked Elyria (26-5) takes on Mason (23-7) in the second of two Division I state semifinals at Firestone Stadium.

It won’t be the first time the schools have clashed in the semis.

They met in 2007 and ’08 and Elyria won both times. It was a 2-1 thriller at Ashland’s Brookside Park in ’07 and an 11-2 rout in ’08, the first year the state tournament was played in Akron.

Until today, those losses have been the only memories of Mason’s appearances in softball semifinals. But for the Comets, things have changed. Brian Castner, their coach in the first two meetings, is gone and Liann Muff, his eight-year assistant, is now in her third season leading the program.

“We have a very good team and they’re fun to coach,” Muff said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s important. Also, we’ve tried to strengthen our non-conference schedule, because strong competition helps our own players improve.”

For the first time, unranked Mason played No. 2 Lebanon in the regular season this year. Mason won, 2-1, but the margin could have been greater.

“We hit their pitcher very well,” Muff said, “but we left 10 runners on base.”

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The neighboring southwestern Ohio schools, about as far apart as Elyria and Keystone, met again on Saturday in a regional final. The Comets prevailed again, 1-0, in what one publication described as an upset.

Conversely, this is the Pioneers’ 10th trip to a Final Four, third in a row and seventh in the last eight years. They won state championships in 2002 and ’09 and were runners-up three straight years, 2006-08.

“Those runner-ups mean a lot, because I realize now how difficult it is to get that far,” Elyria coach Ken Fenik said.

As for the previous games with Mason, the Pioneers won the first on only two hits, singles by second baseman Jessica Mandula and right fielder Sarah Bracey. But southpaw Megan Bashak pitched a four-hitter, recording eight strikeouts and no walks.

Elyria won an unearned run scored by Kristin Sito in the first inning and another in the second when Mandula, who walked, eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Jen Bower. Mason scored a run in the home half of the second inning, but Bashak pitched a two-hit shutout the rest of the way.

“I don’t remember much about that game except it was close and we won,” Fenik said.

Assistant coach Jocelyn Fada said she remember Mason’s batters as left-handed slap hitters.

“Lefty, lefty, lefty,” she said. “Lefty slappers and speed.”

With junior Tess Sito in the circle, Elyria led 7-0 after three innings of the 2008 game and 11-2 after six innings. Sito, who went 4-for-4 at the plate with a double, pitched a 13-strikeout three-hitter and walked none.

“We’re still scouting them, getting as much information as we can,” Fenik said after practice on Monday. “From what I’m hearing, they’re more of a hitting team, not necessarily a short-game run-manufacturing team. That time (in ’08) we played them and beat them we had 13 hits and scored 11 runs.”

That’s the year the Pioneers went on to play North Canton Hoover for the championship the next afternoon in what became one of the most thrilling – and frustrating – games in the history of Elyria softball. They took Hoover into the 10th inning in a scoreless tie, before the Vikings scored on a bunt single, stolen base and single to left to win, 1-0.

Hoover (32-0) takes on Mentor (20-10) in today’s 10 a.m. opener. The Vikings have never lost a game in six previous state tournament appearances. They seek their 13th consecutive Final Four victory today, shooting for a seventh state championship dating to 1998.

Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or softball@bobdaniels.info.