BERLIN CENTER - With a wicked defense, a solid one-two punch in the circle and power hitters littering the lineup, it would be easy to dismiss the 2012 Western Reserve softball team as a rarity. Typically, teams like the 2012 Lady Blue Devils don't come around often. But then again, there's nothing typical about Western Reserve softball.
On Tuesday, the Lady Blue Devils completed a sweep of 21-3 Jackson-Milton. With the 7-4 win came Western Reserve's fourth-straight ITCL Tier 2 title and bragging rights over their old rivals. It also extended the Devils' league winning streak to 66 games. They finish the regular-season at 18-4 and a perfect 14-0 in Tier 2.
So what's the secret to the Blue Devils' success? There's nothing complicated behind it. No complex coaching philosophy. No intricate game planning. The Blue Devils keep it simple. And quite simply, these girls love to play and are willing to put in the work to play better.
"I think the biggest key to our success is how hard these girls work," said third-year Western Reserve head coach Laura Amero. "Our girls work hard in the offseason. They work hard to get better and they love to play. They wanted to practice on Sundays. I had to step in and say 'come on. I need a day off.' They love this sport and want to play as much as they can. I just can't say enough about how much work these girls put in."
Hard work does indeed pay off but so does a tough schedule. Western Reserve often plays up - taking on bigger teams and bigger challenges. The Division IV Blue Devils play Division I Austintown Fitch and Warren Harding. They play Division II Canfield. They play teams that push the Blue Devils to push themselves.
"We don't play a Division IV schedule," Amero said. "We play faster-paced games and bigger teams. That's a big thing. We have Division I teams who are willing to play us because they know they will be challenged as well. They know we'll give them a good game. And it helps us. It helps us during tournament time and it helps us in big games against teams like Jackson-Milton. Our schedule helps us put our best foot forward because you have to put your best foot forward to compete with the teams on our schedule."
Surprisingly, this season was a bit of a question mark for the Blue Devils. Sure, Western Reserve returned talent, but they also lost quite a bit.
"I was confident in the players we had back, but you just never know," Amero said. "We graduated a couple players who were instrumental to last season's success and you always wonder about the dynamics. But this team really came together. They mesh well and work together as a team. Everyone is going to have a bad game, but it takes the pressure off knowing that if you do have a bad game someone is going to step up with a good game and keep it rolling."
That I-got-your-back attitude has been a tremendous asset to the Devils' pitching staff. The pitchers can put the ball over the plate because their fielders will back them up. In Tuesday's game against Jackson-Milton, the Reserve fielders came up with 20 outs. A strikeout took care of the other one.
"Defensively, we're pretty versatile and we have a couple defenses we can use," Amero said. "We're going to make routine plays and sometimes spectacular plays. Our pitchers do a fantastic job on the mound, especially Sissy Stubbs, but they know if the other team does hit the ball, the plays will be made."
Stubbs, a senior, allowed Jackson-Milton just four sporadic hits. She turned away eight-straight Blue Jays and improved her season record to 6-3.
When Stubbs isn't in the circle, she and junior shortstop April Lude switch places. The girls give the Devils quite a rotation. Batters are left frustrated. Hits don't come easy against the duo whether that means striking out or being turned away at first. Throw in April's twin Brittany, who at 8-0 has the best record in rotation, and the Blue Devils boast a staff most Division IV teams can only dream of.
"We have confidence, no matter who we throw," Amero said.
Or who the other team throws at. Stubbs, who was intentionally walked twice by Jackson-Milton, cleanup hitter April Lude and sophomore Marley Oles provide power at the plate. Senior Hannah Mowery brings power, speed and consistency. Senior Chelsey Palumbo - the Devils' answer to a double leadoff and who Amero says misleads opposing teams with her tiny stature - can stroke the ball or when needed lay down a bunt. Brittany Lude can do the same. Junior Alexis Little has been clutch, coming with late-game hits and RBIs. When the Devils need speed on the bases, they look to former sprinter Nicole Barbone, Gabby Stubbs and junior courtesy runner Xya Taylor. When they need contact, consistent hitter Alexis Lude will step up every time.
As for the other players, they're developing and at an excessive rate of speed. Freshmen Tori White and Abby Hemphill, first-year senior player Brittany Cleeland and sophomore Taylor Costello have settled into key roles on the Blue Devils' 16-man roster. With no junior varsity squad, some players had to jump into varsity softball head first. It was sink or swim and nobody sank.
"A lot of our players only had jayvee. experience," Amero said. "Junior varsity to varsity is quite a big jump, but we grew up quick. We matured as a team and we've gained confidence along the way."
They also found a way to overcome adversity. The Blue Devils were dealt a staggering blow when junior first baseman Hope Johnson went down with a season-ending injury. It hurt the Blue Devils but didn't hinder their success.
"We had to shift a few players around due to Hope not being able to play," Amero said. "A few girls had to learn new positions, but they did it and kept us on track."
Now it's full-steam ahead.
"The league championship was definitely a goal and now we want to continue to climb," Amero said. "We want to keep climbing the ladder and we want to peak at the right place and at the right time and for us that means the tournament. The league title was a big weight. That weight has been lifted and tournament play is another weight on us right now. That's our focus."
Western Reserve begins the postseason next week. The Blue Devils will play the winner of the Crestview-Southern game in a Lisbon sectional quarterfinal. The quarterfinal was originally scheduled for May 11 but proved problematic with Western Reserve's prom scheduled the same day. Amero said the game will be likely pushed back.
While the exact date and time of the quarterfinal is uncertain, the Blue Devils intentions are anything but.
"These girls want to leave a legacy," Amero said. "It's their turn to leave a mark, to see what they can do and how far they can go. It's their turn to add to the tradition."