Businessman Bob Lowman owns a building on Commerce Avenue, not far from Keystone High School.
He needs only the front of it, which leaves an area about the size of a warehouse empty and unused in the rear. So he approached softball coach Jim Piazza one day and asked if he could think of a use for it.
As a matter of fact, he could.
Lowman allows Piazza and his Wildcats to use it as a batting practice-training area that contains a dozen or more batting stations which the Wildcats use daily to improve their hitting skills. They include a batting cage, areas for hitting off tees and others for soft-toss and a variety of batting drills and exercises.
It works, to say the least.
The state’s top-ranked, undefeated Wildcats enter another Division II regional semifinal this afternoon batting .465 as a team.
That’s right, as a team.
Three starters — Mallory Nagy, Erin Pond and Carleigh Herrington — are batting .539, .528 and .500, respectively. Six regulars are batting .425 or higher and the lowest average among starters is .362.
Pitcher Kenzie Conrad is batting .470 with 10 home runs. Pond has eight homers, 10 doubles and five triples. Catcher Bri Buckley is batting .481 with seven homers, and so it goes: Alyson Broschk and Bee Shaw have five home runs apiece and Alisha Silva has four.
In addition, the Wildcats have hit a state record 43 home runs, 70 doubles and as many triples (23) as their opponents collectively have scored runs.
Keystone (28-0) will need to put up corresponding numbers when they take the Bucyrus High School diamond at 5 p.m. today. The opponent will be ninth-ranked Bellville Clear Fork (20-10), a Final Four team in Division III last season.
This is the same Clear Fork which as a Division II school in 2009 defeated Keystone 2-0 in the Bucyrus regional final. The Colts were state runners-up that season, losing to Hamilton Ross in the championship game.
The Wildcats are two victories away from their 13th Final Four appearance and four wins from their third state championship. The Wildcats won titles in 1999 and 2006.
They would like to even the score with Clear Fork, for one thing. And for another, they wouldn’t mind getting another shot at second-ranked Poland Seminary and All-American pitcher Erin Gabriel, a Tennessee recruit. The Bulldogs defeated Keystone 4-0 in the state final last year as Gabriel hurled a one-hitter and struck out 10.
What would another state title mean to this group? The fact is, that has been their goal all season. They’re focused on the possibility. They seem to be determined.
“Oh, I have to agree,” Piazza said. “but I don’t know if there’s another word — obsessed maybe? There it is. I think it’s more that they’re obsessed with it. That’s a good thing because it’s like a calming obsessed. It’s not like they’re going to be pressing.”
Listen to the seniors.
“This would mean everything, really,” Nagy, the center fielder, said. “It’s indescribable. You know everyone wants it so bad and you don’t want it just for yourself, but for everybody.
“We have worked so hard for this,” utility player Danyel Whitacre said. “This has been our goal since we were 5 years old. We’ve all played all our lives. It’s our favorite sport, and it’s not even a sport to us. We love it. We realize that it’s here, we realize that we’re seniors, so we know we have to get it now.”
Buckley, the catcher, said: “It’s so important because it’s the last shot for all these seniors. We’ve put all this hard work into it and that’s what we’ve worked for.
Second baseman Silva said the chance to win a state title has been in the Wildcats’ collective mind for many seasons — a sentiment right fielder Broschk also emphasized.
“We’ve played together all these years and we want to go out with something very special,” Silva said. “We want to be remembered somehow and the state championship would be like a cherry on top of everything.”
As for Keystone’s power hitting, it’s basically a pervasive asset, Pond, the shortstop, said.
“It’s pretty much one through nine,” she said. “We’re pretty solid all the way through. We have a lot of power and we don’t really hit for small stuff. Every time we swing, it’s supposed to be 110 percent.
“We do these drills every day and each day we push ourselves harder and harder,” she added. “Every swing on every tee — it sometimes gets boring, but we know it’s what you have to do.”
The team’s new indoor practice area has been a huge help, according to Conrad, the pitcher, who is 21-0 with a 0.61 earned run average and 156 strikeouts.
“We hit, we hit, we hit,” Conrad said. “We go through these rotations, swing as hard as we can and there’s always something we can get better at every single day. Maybe it’s just one little tweak in your swing or being able to hit it harder. But there’s always something we can improve on and that’s what we do.”
First baseman-pitcher Shaw tied the team’s desire to the Keystone tradition.
“Right now, it’s the only thing we want,” she said. “I remember being a little kid and watching Brittney Robinson (class of 2003) and I just wanted to be her. I wanted to be like Jessica Burt (class of 2006) and those girls who played in Ashland. I wanted to be Kristie Malinkey (who in 2006 pitched the first and only perfect game in a state final). I want that feeling. I’m sick of not ever being No. 1. That’s it. I’m not losing.”
In addition to the eight seniors, the Wildcats’ roster also includes four juniors, six sophomores and one freshman.
The freshman is Sarah Fortune, and she said her first year as a varsity player has been an eye-opening experience.
“I’ve never been on a team like this and I’ve never worked so hard,” Fortune said. “I never loved softball until this year, but I liked being with them (older players), and seeing how much they loved it just made me want to work hard.
“They’re all very nice. They treat me just like one of them. They push me hard, too. Just like one of them. This is the year I’ve learned the most about softball. They teach me so much.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.