Mustangs know they'll need to be at their very best in Saturday's clash with Warren Champion.
Everything will be on the line for the Tuslaw softball team on Saturday afternoon. That means everything - good and bad - will count for something.
The Mustangs are plenty aware of what’s riding on their first-ever appearance in a regional-championship softball game, and they’re doing everything they can to make sure all facets of their game are ready for such a moment.
Tuslaw will meet No. 2-ranked Warren Champion at the Eagles 190 Sports Complex in Massillon for the right to move on to the Division III state tournament.
“We’re probably going to have to play our best game of the year in order to beat them,” Tuslaw coach Dan Greenwell said Thursday afternoon. “We’re going to need to be error-free in the field and we’re going to have to have a great pitching performance. … I just think we’re going to need to put everything together to beat a team like this.”
Champion has won 28 of its 30 games this season a year after being upset in the regional semifinal. The Golden Flashes won the Division III state championship in 2015 and didn’t need much time to advance to Saturday’s noon showdown with the Mustangs.
Champion run-ruled Cardinal Mooney 11-0 in six innings in Wednesday's second semifinal.
Tuslaw (25-5), though, remains a team that truly believes in itself. It’s a group that found a way to escape last week’s district tournament with two walk-off wins, and executed just enough to survive a 13-inning affair against Elyria Catholic in the regional semifinal. The Mustangs scored three runs in the top of the 13th inning after patiently waiting for a clutch hit all afternoon en route to the 4-2 victory.
So, Tuslaw’s recent track record, as wacky and stressful as it may have been, proves the Mustangs are no easy out, no matter who is in the other dugout. Still, the accomplishments of Saturday’s opponent has certainly gotten the attention of the PAC-7 champions, who enter as the ninth-ranked Division III team in the state.
“They really have the reputation as being one of the best teams in the state,” Greenwell said of Champion. “They’re really good and probably the toughest team we’ll play all year. We know what we’re in for and we’re going to have to do whatever it takes to beat them.”
To Greenwell, Saturday’s game plan starts with inside the pitcher’s circle. That’s where he hopes his ace right-hander can duplicate what she did during the regional semifinal. Sophomore pitcher Sierra Neff pitched 13 innings of four-hit ball against Elyria Catholic, striking out 11 and holding the Panthers to no runs from the second inning to the 12th.
Behind Neff, the Mustangs’ defense must be ready to provide a sense of support again. That was also key during Tuslaw’s regional-semifinal win, which saw impressive plays by shortstop Breanna Cooper, second baseman Hannah Miller and a potentially game-saving moment at the plate involving catcher Selena Wood.
The senior backstop slapped a tag down for an out to eliminate an Elyria Catholic scoring chance in the sixth inning on Wednesday.
Offensively, Tuslaw is working on some quick improvements after its struggles earlier in the week. The Mustangs left 13 runners on-base in the regional semifinal, and they couldn’t grab a big, run-producing hit until the 13th inning.
Greenwell hopes his team’s most recent performance at the plate is an enigma, though. After all, hanging crooked numbers on the scoreboard has been one of the Mustangs’ greatest strengths all spring.
“We’ve never been in a game where we’ve hit that bad this year,” Greenwell said. “I was very frustrated, but thank goodness they finally adjusted to what (the pitcher) was doing.”
Champion pitcher McKenzie Zigmont will enter Saturday’s matchup with an 18-1 record and boasts a miniscule 1.34 earned-run average. That’s why it’s important for the Mustangs to take full advantage of the base runners they’ll be able to earn along the way.
Luckily, Tuslaw’s speed at the top and bottom of the order has been aggressive when reaching base. In fact, that has become a big reason why it has been able to get to this point in the postseason.
The Mustangs recognize the challenge Saturday’s regional final will offer. They know they’ll have to do multiple things well in order to put themselves in a position to win, too.
But for a group of happy-go-lucky teammates that remains confident through all sorts of adversity, Tuslaw is hoping it can do enough to continue this special season.
“This ride that we’re on is something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives,” Greenwell said. “I just keep telling them to enjoy it while they can. It’s not going to last too long, but they’re going to remember it forever.”
Reach Joe at 330-775-1129 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @jmitchinINDE