After finishing as co-champions of the Toledo Area Athletic Conference and advancing to the district tournament last year, it appeared that the loss of five key seniors would force Cardinal Stritch to take a giant step backward this year.
Not so fast.
Behind the play of Alex Veres and Drew Fancher, the Cardinals are 10-8 overall and 6-2 in the TAAC, good for second in the league, and are poised to make a run in the tournament.
|The Cardinal Stritch Catholic softball team. Front row left to right — Alexi
Jagielski, Cailyn Horna, Sam Huff, Angela Gibson, Drew Fancher, Lizzie
Smith, Mady Moran, Alexa McCourt, Coach Mike Cobb, Alex Veres, Sydnie
Rodriguez, C.C. Gozdowski, Rosa Mondragen, Kara Barshel, and Coach
At the plate, Veres, the No. 3 hitter, is leading the team with a .509 batting average and 21 runs. And Fancher, who hits cleanup, is hitting an even .500 and is tied with Veres for second on the club with 15 RBIs.
Meanwhile, Sam Huff, the No. 9 hitter, has the Cardinals' only two home runs of the year and leads the team with 16 RBIs. A shortstop, Huff is mostly known for her defense.
Other contributors include LF C.C. Gozdowski (.348) and 3B Lizzie Smith (.313), both of whom have scored 19 runs on the season as well as 1B Mady Moran (.318) and Kara Barshel (.306).
The lineup is, as follows: CF Cailyn Horna, Smith, Veres, Fancher, Gozdowski, 2B Alexi Jagielski, Moran, a platoon of players in right field, and Huff.
In the circle, Fancher has developed a rapport with her catcher, Veres, and is pitching very well this season. Fancher, a sophomore, is currently 8-5 on the year with 2.25 ERA and has struck out 137 batters in 87 innings of work this season. Most notably, she has thrown no-hitters in four of her last five starts, an impressive feat.
Manager Don Zbierajewski, now in his fourth season with the club, spoke about the team's aspirations.
“Our personal goal is to win the TAAC, but that's going to be challenging,” he said. “We made it to the district semifinal for the first time in I don't know how many years (last season). We're hoping to get to the district finals this year.
“Right now, the confidence level is pretty high; we've won six in a row. Hopefully, they just take that and keep going because we've got sectionals this weekend. We need to stay confident, but not get cocky.”
A non-conference slate that featured the likes of Central Catholic, Maumee, Oak Harbor and Lake helped to prepare the Cardinals for the conference slate. With two losses in the TAAC, the Cardinals need Gibsonburg (15-5, 6-0 TAAC) to lose one league game before the two play one another on May 20. If that happens and Stritch defeats the Golden Bears, they'll be able to tie for the league title, provided they win their other conference games.
“That was where we picked up the bulk of our losses,” Zbierajewski said. “We played Oak Harbor, Maumee, Delta, Central Catholic. We try to play bigger schools so that even if we lose, at least (the kids) got something they can learn. Hopefully game experience can help them in the tournament.”
What makes the team's performance so impressive is the fact that the Cardinals have done it after losing five of their best players from last season.
Last year's team was led by pitcher Katie Turski (11-4, 1.03 ERA), who earned first-team TAAC honors for her performance in 2012. On top of that, fellow senior Missy Cobb (.436 BA, 19 RBI), the shortstop, was the top hitter on the club and 2B Emily Lorton and CF Christy Adams were four-year letter winners. Third baseman Ally Niehaus was a three-year letter winner.
“We lost a lot of that leadership but we're gaining it back with Drew and I,” said Veres, who wants to go out with a bang during her senior season. “It's been, to me, really important and I want to make a good impression and I want to finish strong.
Zbierajewski is optimistic about the future.
“The exciting thing is that, the girls that replaced them are all freshman and sophomores,” he said. “The future looks bright.”
As for now, the Cardinals can focus on tournament play and trying to win the league title. Stritch faces league foe Toledo Christian this weekend in the Division IV Sectional Tournament. Should the Cardinals advance, they'll play St. Mary CC on Monday at 5 p.m. at Gibsonburg High School.