December 21, 2014

Elyria
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Regional Softball: Elyria’s improbable run reaches Final Four as streaking Pioneers claim fourth straight regional title

The Elyria Pioneers softball team celebrates its 4-0 victory over Brecksville in the Division I regional championship game. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

The Elyria Pioneers softball team celebrates its 4-0 victory over Brecksville in the Division I regional championship game. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

CLYDE — If it seems like fantasy, it’s because it was so improbable.

Three weeks ago, few people, if any, would have given Elyria’s softball team the remotest chance of returning to the state Final Four.

But perceived improbabilities are why they play the games.

With a largely unexpected 4-0 victory over second-ranked Brecksville on Saturday, the No. 10 Pioneers (23-7) won their fourth straight Division I regional championship, and eighth in the last nine years.

They did it on the strength of two home runs by senior catcher Kaitlyn Laseke, a six-hit shutout by sophomore pitcher Elizabeth Ellis and flawless defense.

On Monday, the Pioneers start preparations for a state semifinal against eighth-ranked Grove City (25-6) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Akron’s Firestone Stadium.

The winner gets a state final shot at either No. 1 Lebanon or No. 3 North Canton Hoover at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Elyria fans were animated and vocal when Ellis fired a two-strike dropball past Brecksville pinch hitter Stephanie Delroso for the final out.

Elyria's Madison Fullmer hugs Elizabeth Ellis after the Lady Pioneers beat Brecksville.

Elyria’s Madison Fullmer hugs Elizabeth Ellis after the Lady Pioneers beat Brecksville.

Part of the joy was perhaps because of the seemingly unlikely outcome. And part was because this was the same Brecksville team that defeated Elyria 7-1 on May 9. That was the Pioneers’ seventh loss, the most in coach Ken Fenik’s 20 seasons.

It was also their last. They have since reeled off 10 straight victories, including an unlikely, come-from-behind, eight-inning 8-6 victory over No. 5 Oregon Clay on Wednesday.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a team that was this much of an underdog do what they’ve done,” Fenik said. “You know, losing seven seniors last year on that great squad, then having these young kiddies come up — with the exception of (Kaitlyn and Kandis Laseke) — this is just an incredible team.

“I’ve got great (assistant) coaches and I’m just overwhelmed right now,” he added. “This is a really special one.”

Ellis, who seems to improve every time out, struck out three and walked only one, that in the first inning. She also started an uncommon — for high school softball — 1-6-3 double play that ended what might have been the start of a Brecksville rally in the fifth.

“Nobody thought we’d go anywhere and it’s just indescribable the way I feel now,” Ellis said. “I’ve worked hard and listened to Coach Fenik and (taken) little pieces of advice and added them to what I already had. Everything was working for me today. My off-speed pitches were working.”

As for getting the final out, Ellis said: “I wanted to strike her out. I just wanted it over.”

Laseke doubled her season home run output. She produced what became the eventual winning RBI with a one-out solo shot over the left-field fence in the second inning. And she secured the victory with a two-run homer to straightaway center with sophomore Carly Bachna on base after walking in the sixth.

“I wasn’t even thinking it was over,” Laseke said of her first bomb. “I was still running as fast as I could go. Second one, the same thing. I thought she was going to catch it. I’m almost to third and I’m still sprinting. Fenik just had his hand out like this (for a hand slap) and I’m like, ‘Oh?’”

Between Laseke’s homers, Elyria scored its second run in the third inning when junior second baseman Mackenzie Phares hit a single up the middle that sent freshman third baseman Dierra Hammons running home. Hammons was at second with a stolen base after hitting a one-out single.

“I just went up there thinking a base hit will score a run,” Phares said. “Dierra was in scoring position and I thought, ‘Don’t think too much, just hit it and don’t try to do too much with it. Just make contact, the speed of the pitch will take it where it needs to go.’”

Brecksville, the Southwestern Conference champion, finished the season 29-3. The Bees were seeking their first regional championship in 21 years.

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

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