By Rob Kiser
On paper, Jeromesville Hillsdale and Bradford may appear as opposite as two softball programs could be heading into Friday’s D-IV state semifinal at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
Hillsdale has the tradition and history — and the Lady Falcons, 25-2, are the top-ranked Division IV program in the state.
Bradford is making its first trip to the Final Four.
The Lady Railroaders are 22-3 and ranked 10th in the state.
“I know this is Bradford’s first time in the state tournament,” Hillsdale coach Hannah Fulk said. “Congrats to them. It is a tremendous accomplishment to get to the state tournament.”
To say the least, Hillsdale has been there, done that.
This is the Falcons 15th appearance in the Final Four — and Hillsdale has won six state titles. Included in those trips was a loss to Newton in the 1995 state semifinals.
“It is just something you grow up with here,” Fulk, the second-year coach said about the tradition at Hillsdale. “It is a small town and everybody loves softball. When you are in elementary, you look up to those girls and want to be one of those girls. I know. That was me.”
And Fulk said that tradition gives Hillsdale one distinct advantage.
“This is my second year as coach,” Fulk said. “So, I haven’t been at state (as a coach), but a lot of the girls played at state. They can prepare the other girls for what to expect at Firestone Stadium and I think that is big.”
Like Bradford, Hillsdale is led by a fireballing pitcher who is one of the team’s best hitters.
Senior Sydney Long is batting .459 with 28 RBIs, while sporting a .86 ERA.
In the postseason, Hillsdale has outscored opponents 37-0.
“By no means has Sydney (Long) had her best stuff in some of those tournament games,” Fulk said about the girl who has pitched eight straight shutouts. “She just keeps battling out there and finds a way to get it done.”
Junior Sophie Goon is batting .400 with 30 RBIs, while sophomore Hattie Stamen has batted .397 with 12 stolen bases.
Junior Emily Crossen is batting .372 with 23 RBIs and senior Kaylee Cline has batted .357 with 24 RBIs.
Cline, the catcher, and Keirah Smelzer, are the other two senior starters with Long.
“Sydney Long is just an amazing girl,” Fulk said. “You just know she is going to go out there and play with so much heart every game. It is really hard to single out any one girl. Because 1 to 9 have made big plays at some point this season. But, our senior class is a great group and we are really going to miss them.”
Bradford is led by freshman Skipp Miller, who has a .77 ERA while averaging double digit strikeouts. That includes a 19 strikeout game against Versailles. She also bats .549 with 32 RBIs.
And when she was intentionally walked Saturday, senior shortstop Bailey Wysong came up and hit a grand slam behind her.
Wysong is batting .344 with 28 RBIs.
Junior first baseman Bianca Keener has plenty of pop in her bat and hits .424, while senior Chelsea Gill hits .419 from her centerfield position.
The other seniors are rightfielder Hannah Fout and courtesy runner Aspen Weldy.
All nine Bradford batters had hits Saturday.
And the Railroaders have outscored opponents 34-4 in the postseason.
“I heard they (Bradford) have a really good freshman pitcher,” Fulk said. “I know they have four freshman starting and I heard they had a really good game Saturday, so they are coming in with a lot of momentum.”
And with this kind of pitching matchup, defense could easily be the deciding factor.
“Our defense was a little rocky at the start of the season,” Fulk said. “I blame that on the weather. Anytime you read a story or hear Sydney (Long) talk, she always mentions she couldn’t do it without the defense. We always talk about one play at a time.
“Field the ball. Throw the ball. Keep it simple, so things don’t get made any bigger than they might seem to be. Don’t get overwhelmed with the situation.”
Which is good advice for two teams that are so similar, it is like looking in a mirror.
Rob Kiser is Sports Editor for the Daily Call. He can be reached at (937) 451-3334.