Poland finishes West Branch’s season again

ALLIANCE – In the last three years, West Branch has totaled 58 wins, the most for any three-year span for the program.

If only the Warriors could avoid facing the Poland Bulldogs.

Continuing a recent trend of tournament supremacy, third-seeded West Branch was ousted from the Division II Alliance district semifinals on Wednesday in a 5-0 loss to second-seeded Poland at Union Title Field. This is the third straight year that the Bulldogs (22-7) have eliminated the Warriors (22-6) from tournament play.

“We didn’t even talk about the last two years,” West Branch coach Sis Woods said. “Poland isn’t the same team they were the past two years. We thought they were comparable to us this year. Our philosophy all year was that it doesn’t matter who’s in that other dugout. If we do our jobs, we’ll win.”

In 2012, West Branch lost to Poland 9-0 in the district semifinals. The Bulldogs would go on to lose in the state semifinals to eventual champion LaGrange Keystone. Even when West Branch did grab a district crown, as it did in 2011, the Warriors’ elimination was brought on by the Bulldogs – Poland, who were champions of the Jefferson district in 2011, beat the Warriors 5-0 in the regional semifinals. Poland would go on to win its first state championship.

“West Branch is always a quality team,” Poland first-year coach Matt Campbell said. “They’re always well-coached and they had an outstanding season. Getting runs across early against this team was really big.”

Poland jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second when Ally Deemer and Anna Barnhart each brought home an RBI with a double and a single, respectively. With the lead in hand, the Bulldogs coasted behind the arm of senior pitcher Kasie Serich.

“She’s been our workhorse all year long,” Campbell said. “We’ve had some games earlier in the year where she’s pitched solid but our bats let her down. But she came through again for us tonight. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

Serich allowed just three hits and three walks in the complete game shutout, tossing seven strikeouts.West Branch’s offense never made a serious threat to Poland’s early lead, which Serich attributed to her pitch location.

“I was keeping my composure on the mound,” Serich said. “I knew they had hitters, so I was aiming for the corners. The ump was calling a bit of a small strike zone, so I had to work with what I got.”

West Branch failed to find any power against Serich’s accurate pitches. All three hits for the Warriors were singles, and it was rare to see a batted ball leave the infield. Overall, Serich was dominant.

“We just didn’t have the hits today,” Woods said. “We’re a much better hitting team than we were today. She (Serich) did a nice job pitching, but she wasn’t overpowering. We’ve hit that kind of pitching all year.”

While Serich was terrific on the mound, West Branch pitcher Kaylie Lewis also gave a tremendous effort. Lewis, a junior, held Poland to two runs in the first four innings, forcing Serich to avoid any mistakes and allowing West Branch to remain within striking distance.

That changed in the fifth inning when the Bulldogs scored three runs to expand their lead to 5-0. Marissa Trevis, Arlia Duarte and Aleah Hughes all had RBIs in the inning that gave Poland a comfortable amount of insurance.

West Branch’s hits were from Bailey McElwain, Cheyenne Miller and Jeni Stewart. McElwain reached base safely in all three of her at-bats, drawing two walks along with her single.

It’s become a redundant situation for the Warriors, who had hoped to win their second district title in school history. Instead, West Branch will attempt to capitalize off a large number of returning players for next season. The Warriors lose only two seniors, but they are crucial ones – four-year letterman Reagan Rito, who led the team in hitting, and starting outfielder Mallory Hughes.

The Warriors posted 22 wins this season, a new school record. However, Woods believes improvement remains within the program.

“Losing players like that, those are big shoes to fill,” Woods said. “But the players this year stepped up into the positions that we lost from last year.

“Kaylie stepped up for us this year, and she didn’t pitch a bad game today. They just found their bloop hits, and had we not struggled with communication early on, I don’t think they would have scored those early runs. They got the momentum early when they got the lead.”

Overall, Poland was led by Hughes who had two hits, including a double. Taylor Miokovic added a double, while Meredith Tesone had a pinch-hit single.

Poland faces a familiar opponent in the district championship – the Canfield Cardinals. The Bulldogs fell twice to Canfield in the regular season, including giving up a walk-off home run to lose 4-3. The two teams will meet once again today with a trip to Akron regionals on the line.

“I know it’s tough to beat any team three times in a row,” Serich said. “If we play as a team and try not to think about what’s happened in the past, we should win.”

Game notes

– Poland will be vying for its fifth straight district title today when it faces Canfield at Union Title Field. Poland has won 11 district titles since 2001, as well as four regional titles and one state title.

– Canfield and Poland faced each other in the Jefferson district championship in 2008, with Canfield emerging victorious. This was the last season Poland did not win a district title. Canfield, meanwhile, went on to win its first and only state championship.