When the Pickerington High School Central softball team received the ninth seed in the Division I district tournament, coach Carrie Eneix admitted she went to the same bracket as top-seeded Delaware and fourth-seeded Olentangy Liberty because she was confident OCC-Ohio Division play had steeled her team to make a deep run.
After the Tigers upset Delaware 8-6 in eight innings in a Division I district final May 25 at home, Eneix believed her team would hold its own against league rival Grove City in a regional semifinal May 29 at Ohio State even though it had lost to the Greyhounds 16-3 in five innings April 15 and 15-5 on May 1.
But while the third meeting with Grove City was much closer, the result was the same, as Central lost 7-2 to finish 21-9 overall.
"We swung at the bad pitches and took the good ones," Eneix said. "We usually aren't a team that strikes out a lot and we had nine (May 29). Three were looking, which isn't like us at all. We didn't seem to be ready.
"Defensively, we've emphasized, especially against teams that hit the ball like Grove City does, that you can't give them extra outs. We made four errors. You give a team extra outs, especially a team like Grove City, and they'll take advantage."
Grove City opened a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, with second baseman Haylea Garner driving in two runs with a single.
Central cut its deficit to 4-2 in the top of the fourth with an RBI triple by junior catcher Sadie Cunningham and a sacrifice fly by sophomore pitcher Hannah Gilkey, but the Greyhounds answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning to make it 6-2 and closed out the scoring with a run in the fifth.
Gilkey gave up seven hits and four walks and had three strikeouts in six innings. Grove City pitcher Emma Cornell allowed four hits and three walks with nine strikeouts.
"We moved the ball around, they made a couple of mistakes and we capitalized," Greyhounds coach Ted Williams said. "It (was) huge for us to get four (runs) so early because it gives us confidence and takes some things away from your opponent that they would typically try to do."
Central won its second consecutive district title by defeating Delaware, which had beaten 10th-seeded Teays Valley 4-3 in a district semifinal May 22.
The Tigers also lost in a regional semifinal last year in Eneix's first season as coach, falling 4-0 to Central Crossing.
"Most certainly, we surprised some people (by defeating Delaware)," junior shortstop Allie Luther said. "We lost 18-4 to Teays Valley (on April 3), and now we're Division I district champions against a team that beat them. I am sure several people were not expecting this at all. It's a lot of fun to prove people wrong."
Central opened the district tournament with a 20-0, five-inning win over 42nd-seeded Columbus West on May 14 at home, beat 12th-seeded Olentangy 2-1 in the second round May 16 at home and defeated Liberty 5-2 in a district semifinal May 22 at home to reach one of the three district finals.
"We started focusing really hard when the tournament started, truthfully," Gilkey said. "That was the best we've played all year."
Grove City, which was seeded second, and sixth-seeded Gahanna won the other district titles, making it a clean sweep for the OCC-Ohio.
"(The players) didn't surprise me (by winning a district championship), but they did themselves," Eneix said. "We knew we'd be a strong offensive team, but it was making the adjustments pitching and defensively. And once those two things came along in the playoffs when we played decent defense and got better pitching, that's when people realized this was coming together."
Central went 9-5 in the OCC-Ohio to tie Groveport for third, behind Grove City (13-1) and Gahanna (11-3) and ahead of Lancaster (7-7), Pickerington North (5-9), Newark (2-12) and Reynoldsburg (0-14).
The Tigers lose two seniors in Molly Riggs (OF) and Kylie Timbrook (utility).
Riggs had a .479 batting average and was named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Among the key players expected to return are Cunningham, Gilkey, Luther and sophomores Hunter Brancifort (3B), Alex Kidwell (1B) and Madi Schott (2B).
Luther, who started the season at first base, batted .453 with 10 doubles and four home runs and was first-team all-district and second-team all-league. Brancifort hit .410 with a team-high six home runs and was second-team all-state and first-team all-district and all-league, and Cunningham, a three-year starter, batted .438 and was named second-team all-district and first-team all-league.
Kidwell (.398, 2 home runs) was special mention all-league and Schott (.357) was honorable mention all-league.
Gilkey finished 13-7 in the circle with a 3.39 ERA, 66 strikeouts and 43 walks in 126 innings.