When the Green Bay Packers won five NFL titles and two Super Bowls during the 1960s under the leadership of the late great quarterback Bart Starr, the entire community was dubbed “Titletown USA.”
That name, on a local level, can now be used to describe Plain City.
With Saturday’s Division II softball state championship, the community that is split between Union and Madison counties can rightfully call itself by the same name.
The Lady Pioneers claimed the state title during their fourth trip to the Final Four at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.
The most recent state championship is the fourth such team honor for the school district in the past 21 years.
The baseball team captured state crowns in 1998 and 2010, while the girls basketball team garnered a championship in March of 2006.
The Lady Pioneer diamond squad now joins the rest of the district’s elite teams.
Overall athletic success is nothing new to JA.
Troy Caldwell won a recent state wrestling championship, the Lady Pioneer volleyball team finished as state runner-up a few years ago and the baseball squad has played in a couple other Final Four tournaments.
There is also the Pioneer gridiron squad that has made numerous state playoff appearances.
The JA gridders have made several long runs in the post-season, including a state runner-up finish in 2006.
As you can see, sports are a huge and successful deal in Plain City.
Alder made its first trek to the state softball Final Four back in 2014.
That year, with pitcher Mady Watson in the circle, JA finished as state runner-up to Lima Bath.
The team missed out on the Final Four during the next two seasons.
Since 2017, however, the Lady Pioneers have been a mainstay in Akron.
The past two seasons have ended in disappointment with losses in the state semifinals.
I remember sitting in on the interview session after last year’s semifinal loss and there was a good deal of hurt among the players.
Senior pitcher Katelyn Perkins, who followed in Watson’s footsteps, commented about how great it was to be in the circle for such great teammates and how disappointed she was that she couldn’t pitch the squad to the championship game.
Despite that loss, most folks in the know realized the team was going to be solid again this season.
There was, however, a big concern and that was who would replace Perkins in the circle?
There was only one pitcher coming back from last year’s team and that was sophomore Allison Caldwell.
Two new faces on the roster were freshmen hurlers Marlee Jacobs and Jaden Phelps.
Even though the team’s eventual No. 1 pitcher would be relatively inexperienced, head coach Dave McGrew didn’t seem all that concerned when I talked to him during the preseason.
He was very high on all three pitchers, although he did admit they weren’t varsity-tested.
The coach’s concerns didn’t last very long.
From the beginning of the season, Jacobs became firmly established as the top pitcher on the staff.
She had pitched well during fall workouts and continued to improve as the spring season progressed.
While not one to post gaudy strikeout numbers, Jacobs knew she had one of the top defenses, especially the infield, in the state of Ohio behind her.
Jacobs heavily relied on that defense and for good reason.
Junior shortstop Emily Walker is one of the best high school softball players I’ve ever seen in that position. And I’ve seen a lot of shortstops.
Third baseman Jillian Jaske may be better known for her home run hitting prowess, but she’s also an exceptional fielder.
Her diving catch against Philo during the regional semifinal game was a thing of beauty.
She also displayed quick reflexes in snaring line drives that were on top of her in the blink of an eye at the hot corner.
The anchor of the infield, though, in my opinion was senior second baseman Angela Brandel.
I witnessed her making a number of remarkable plays along the tournament trail.
Kelsey McDonald developed into a solid first sacker and made a nice play behind the bag for an out in foul territory during the Philo game.
The outfield was capably handled by Danielle Robbins, Lindsey Potter and Cierra Clark, all of whom will return next year.
Caitlin Craig was also a very solid catcher. Folks will also remember it was her home run that invoked the run-rule during the regional championship game against Thornville Sheridan.
Jacobs’ abilities fit right in with that staunch defense.
She’s the type of hurler who throws quite a few ground balls that go for outs.
What impressed me the most about Jacobs was the increased maturity she showed as a freshman.
I talked to her several times before huge games and she did not give off any nervous vibes.
Now, there were times when she ran into rough spots.
That’s not unusual for a freshman on the big stage.
However, she would quickly settle down and pitch the team to victory.
A loss to North Union two months ago ultimately became the only blemish on Jacobs’ freshman season (and the team’s as well) as she posted an impressive 28-1 record, with an ERA of slightly less than one run per game.
Speaking of NU, Jacobs’ frosh maturity reminded me so much of the character that former Lady Cat standout Jessica Price displayed during her first season of pitching high school ball.
With a state championship under her belt, Jacobs is bound to gain more confidence and maybe a bit of a swagger when she strides to the circle in the coming years.
That’s exactly what a fast pitch team needs… a pitcher who has the attitude that no one is going to get the best of her.
Jacobs developed that fearless factor and opponents better watch out for the next three years.
Alder also benefitted from a very strong offense as the Lady Pioneers were tough outs from spots 1-9 in the order.
McGrew repeatedly said during the season that his team’s depth was one of its strongest factors.
Fortunately, most of that depth will return in 2020.
Craig and Brandel were the lone seniors on this year’s team.
That means the Lady Pioneers must find a new catcher and second baseman.
Craig was certainly a valuable member of the team as she used her varsity experience to help guide Jacobs through some of those rough rookie spots.
The second base slot that is being vacated by Brandel may be a little more difficult to fill.
The middle infield positions are so vital for outs in the quick tempo of high school softball.
Whoever is chosen to fill Brandel’s shoes, however, will have the benefit of working alongside veteran teammates.
It was fun to see Pioneer Nation rally around the team throughout the post-season.
The crowds were large and enthusiastic and were led by the “Fro Bros.”
With so many veterans returning for the 2020 campaign, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lady Pioneers return to Akron a year from now.
Get your rest Alder softball fans.
Something tells me you’re going to need it.
...For the full story, select an option below.