Since winter, Elyria’s 11- and 12-year-old Little League softball All-Stars have been working toward a trip to the state tournament.
Their determination paid off last week when they won the District 3 championship with a pair of convincing victories over Tallmadge, an old rival.
“That’s been our goal,” manager Len Howser said after Tuesday’s rain-shortened practice. “Now it’s here.”
The Elyria girls can take their first step toward a state championship with a win over Conneaut, the District 1 champion, at 6 p.m. today in Englewood, near Dayton. A state championship would send Elyria to the regionals in Indianapolis on July 20-25. After that, there could be a trip to Oregon for the World Series.
The girls have incentive. Theirs could be the first team from Elyria in the age group to win a state championship.
They have experience. One of the team’s battery combinations — pitcher April Howser and catcher Lexi Reinhardt — have been teammates since they were 8.
They’re strong defensively, they have power in the bat of Gabby Shackelford and they’re versatile; eight of their 12 players can play more than one position and Haley Schultz can play first base, the outfield and she can pitch.
They’re also confident and enjoy good chemistry.
“This is really exciting, because for a while we’ve been thinking about going to the World Series and now we’re a little closer,” April Howser said. “I trust our team, our hitting and our defense. We’re good hitters. I go in and pitch my game and count on my defense to help me out.”
Reinhardt said the team has bonded.
“Chemistry is important because you should know your friends and your team like you’re family,” Reinhardt said.
Indeed, the players burst almost spontaneously into the still-popular song, “We Are Family,” during an indoor photo session.
“We made that our song about two years ago at a tournament and it stuck with us,” Reinhardt said. “I’m excited about the state tournament, but I’m also nervous in case we mess up. But I think we’ll do good.”
And if this team also seeks inspiration, the players need look no further than Rybecca Kubisen at first base.
“She has overcome numerous health concerns over the winter and Little League season for a chance to play for the All-Stars,” Len Howser said.
Start with a broken ankle.
Kubisen said the break happened in the spring when she fell at school. She wore a cast, then a boot until the ankle healed and she was able to practice and play again.
“After I broke my ankle, I fractured something in my hip,” she said. “I was out for a couple weeks, but I still played for about two months with my hip hurting. I finally went to the doctor and he told me I had to stop playing for about six to eight weeks.”
She recovered, only to suffer a concussion playing for the Elyria Softball Organization in a travel-team tournament in North Ridgeville.
“I was playing first base, there was a dropped third strike and I was on the left side of the bag because they didn’t have (orange) safety bags,” she recalled. “The girl ran into me and her helmet mask went into the side of my neck. I landed on my shoulder and my head went straight back.”
Now most of her health concerns are behind her.
“It feels really good to be back on the field after so many injuries,” Kubisen said. “I don’t mean for them to happen, they just happen randomly. No more injuries, I’m hoping. I’m trying my best to stay healthy and do as much as I can without hurting myself.”
But not all of her health issues have disappeared.
“I have a (vitamin deficiency) that means my vitamin D is always low,” she said. “It changes the pigment of my skin and I struggle with it. I have to take vitamins for the rest of my life, because I don’t soak up the vitamin D from the sun as much as other people. If my vitamin D is really low, I sleep a lot and my energy level is very low.”
But her focus is on the games at hand.
“Going to state is one of the best feelings in the world,” Kubisen said. “We’ll be competing against other Ohio teams and actually have a chance to get on TV. We practice all the time and we’ve been working for this since winter with our travel team, because everybody on our travel team is on the All-Star team.
“We’ve been practicing since winter and it’s practice, practice, practice until we get it right,” she added. “Once we get it right, we move on. My first goal is to make it to regionals, but my ultimate goal is to get to the World Series and to play on TV.”
For this team, there is more to playing softball than the sport itself.
“We try to teach character and accountability as well as softball skills,” said Howser, who was on Keith Buckley’s coaching staff when Elyria’s Junior All-Stars finished second in the world in 2009. “Our first statement when we’re setting our goals is to make friends and memories that last a lifetime.
“All of the girls on this team, except Damia Parks — who had a wonderful Little League season — play ESO travel softball,” he said. “That didn’t mean they were automatically on the All-Star team, they had to earn that. But I think because of that and their hard work over the winter it made it possible for them to come this far.
“All along, we’ve said that if we worked hard this year, there’s enough talent on this team that it has the potential to advance beyond the state level to regionals. And they should set their mark high. It would be great to be the first team from Elyria to win the state title (in the age group) and then go all the way.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
April Howser P/SS
Lexi Reinhardt C/3B
Kaeli Evans CF
Gabby Shackelford SS/C
Faith Hamilton 3B/P
Rybecca Kubisen 1B
Haley Schultz 1B/OF/P
Emily Hyer 2B/OF
Cassie Miller OF
Gabby Zerbini OF/P
Maegan Phares OF/2B
Damia Parks OF