The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Jonathan Alder High School softball coach Dave McGrew may feel like he’s having a deja vu moment this week as his Lady Pioneers prep for the OHSAA Division II state tournament at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
Just three years ago, McGrew took an upstart bunch of talented, but young overachievers into the school’s first-ever state tournament appearance. Waiting for the Pioneers in the semifinal was a beast of a program from Licking County. A team with a dominant pitcher, a high-powered offense and a squad that had won the D-II state championship the season before.
That squad was Licking Valley. A team that many pegged prior to the season and more significantly just prior to the state tourney as the team to beat.
But that collection of hard-nosed Alder kids did what many thought was impossible. They pulled off the stunning upset to advance to the D-II state championship game. Things ultimately didn’t go the Pioneers way in the 2014 championship match, but the experience of knocking off a behemoth to get there could prove to be beneficial three years later.
Another very young Alder team will once again take on a monster squad from Licking County in the D-II semifinal Friday at 3 p.m. The Pioneers, who starts four freshmen, will tangle with defending D-II state champion Hebron Lakewood (30-1), an intimidating group of hard-hitting players, who feature one of the state’s best pitchers in senior Courtney Vierstra.
“It’s the same scenario all over again,” McGrew said. “They’re the defending champs and Vierstra has a 0.10 ERA, are you kidding me? They play a primo schedule and have beaten a lot of really good teams. They’re the real deal.”
On paper, the task looks daunting, especially considering the Pioneers start four freshmen. But Alder does have senior catcher Kayla Fredendall. The Appalachian State University-bound standout is the only member of the Pioneers who actually played in that semifinal upset in 2014. As a freshman she batted third in that game and was one for two at the plate.
Fredendall was the hero in the regional tournament, smashing a pair of home runs in the semifinal win over Springfield Shawnee and then hitting the game-winning 2-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the regional final win over Greenville.
The biggest challenge for Alder may not be hitting Vierstra, a Miami University signee, but finding a way to slow the red-hot Lancers bats. Lakewood comes into the state semifinal having outscored its postseason opponents a whopping 73-2. It’s led offensively by senior first baseman Brenna Brownfield, who is signed to play at Kent State University, and junior shortstop Megan Davis. Those two both had a pair of home runs in the regional semifinal win over Vincent Warren.
Those duties will rest on the right arm of Alder junior starting pitcher Katelyn Perkins and the Pioneers defense.
“We understand that nobody’s giving us a chance,” McGrew said. “But I promise you this, Lakewood will get everything we have. They’re a very good team, but I wouldn’t trade what we have here for anything.”
The winner of the Alder-Lakewood affair will meet the winner of Akron Hoban (23-2) and LaGrange Keystone (26-4) in the D-II state championship game Saturday at 7 p.m. back at Akron Firestone Stadium. Lakewood, Keystone and Hoban were all in the state semifinals a year ago.
Reach Chris Miles at 740-852-1616, ext. 1618 or via Twitter @MadPressSports.