Wednesday, March 22

Road to Akron: Valley softball teams set for postseason play | News, Sports, Jobs

Staff file photo/Brian Yauger
Mathews’ Gianna Toto slides into home plate during a game against Badger on May 2.

A wet and wild regular season of high school softball has come and (for the most part) gone. Teams are still wrapping up some leftover league games postponed by rain, but the race for the big trophy starts today with the first round of the postseason.

Multiple area teams have battled through the elements garnering the top seeds in their respective districts.

In Mahoning County, both South Range and Austintown Fitch are not only the top seeds in their districts, those schools also are going to be hosting the district semifinals and finals.

The Falcons have had an outstanding year, currently sitting at an 18-2 record with one game remaining against Howland on Tuesday. They’ve been led by sophomore shortstop Ayla Ray (.603 batting average, 41 hits and eight stolen bases) and freshman pitcher Sydnie Watts (238 strikeouts, 10 earned runs and has hit seven home runs).

Having an inexperienced ace come tournament time might worry some coaches, but Falcons coach Steven Ward is just fine, mentioning that on the field, Watts has the poise and leadership skills of a girl much older. Not to mention that she’s also kind of a good pitcher as well.

“Sydnie is so effective in the circle,” Ward said. “She doesn’t have a weak point in her game, but she’s so humble. She’s so complimentary of all of her teammates. First thing she says (in an interview) is ‘It’s all my teammates.’ So having her as a freshman, but acting like a senior leader, just speaks volume to her character and personality.”

Fitch has high expectations, but one major goal. As long as they can achieve that goal, they’re comfortable with the outcome.

“Our number one goal is to maximize our team’s ability,” Ward said. “That’s flat out what we have to do. We do that and everything else will take care of itself. If each player contributes what they’re able to contribute, we’re going to be a successful team.”

Fitch’s first matchup of the postseason will be on Wednesday against the winner of Kent Roosevelt and Canton McKinley’s first-round tilt.

Further north up in Trumbull County, Mathews is the top seed in the Kinsman District. The Mustangs are 15-4 with a regular season finale game scheduled for Tuesday against Hubbard.

With a new coach and a largely new lineup as well, the Mustangs had some question marks coming into the year. They’ve done a good job of erasing any doubt however, beating Bristol twice, a clean sweep of league games and a win over strong Division II powerhouse West Branch.

Mathews has a budding superstar as well in freshman Olivia Matheny. Matheny leads the team at the plate with a .627 batting average, 37 hits, 30 RBIs, six home runs and is also the team’s No. 2 pitcher.

Their top pitcher however? Senior Emma Gates. Gates and catcher Kaylen McCollum are two of the three seniors on the roster. Mustangs coach Tom VanKirk has said pretty much everything a coach can say about a pitcher. A great leader, coachable, a great arm. You name it, he’s said it.

After the game against Fitch last week, a game which saw both aces go head-to-head, VanKirk lofted probably the highest praise of all toward Gates.

“There’s no pitcher in the state of Ohio I’d rather have,” he said.

The Fairmont State (W. Va.) commit has racked up 136 strikeouts across 15 games in the circle.

Like Fitch, Mathews is taking a freewheeling approach to the tournament as well. They’re going to just work hard and let the pieces fall where they may.

“We’re just going to keep the pedal to the metal,” VanKirk said. “We don’t know where we’re going to end up, but we’re going to have fun doing it.”

Despite being No. 2 seeds, Bristol, Ursuline and West Branch are the top seeds in the North Jackson, Leavittsburg and Jefferson districts respectively. Teams are seeded top to bottom, then choose from two nearby districts. That’s why the top seed in a district isn’t always the No. 1 seed.

Other teams of note to keep an eye on are Brookfield (Division IV, Kinsman District), Crestview (Division III, South Range District), Champion (Division III, Leavittsburg District), and Poland (Division II, Jefferson District).

The first round starts today with the opening rounds for Divisions I and IV. Divisions II and III will start tomorrow.

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