AKRON – Good teams have pitching, hitting and defense, but defense rarely gets the attention the other two do.
No one was overlooking defense after Bath’s 3-1 win over Tallmadge in a Division II state softball semifinal Thursday, though.
The Wildkittens (28-1) brought defense to center stage. Then they brought it back for a couple of curtain calls.
Bath will play Plain City Jonathan Alder at 10 a.m. Saturday for the Division II state championship after the Pioneers beat 2013 state champion Newark Licking Valley 4-3 in Thursday’s other semifinal.
“I thought our defense was just amazing today,” Bath coach Hannah Slavin said. “We made some really nice plays in the field that allowed us to bring up our energy and that kind of set the tone for us.”
The Wildkittens jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when leadoff hitter Jenna Hollar singled, stole second, moved up on a ground out, then scored on Julia Miller’s double.
They added another run in the fourth inning when Miller doubled, pinch-runner Tara Herr moved up on a sacrifice bunt and scored on an error. Their final run came in the fifth inning when Ellie Dackin reached base on an error, went to third base on a sacrifice bunt and scored on Hollar’s single.
From there, pitcher Kimmy Reynolds (6 strikeouts, 1 walk) and the defense took over.
The first stellar defensive play came in the third inning when Tallmadge’s Lexi Philen led off with a single and the Blue Devils’ leadoff hitter Taylor Phillips put down a sacrifice bunt.
After Phillips was called out, second baseman Alyssa Manley, covering at first, fired a throw to shortstop Kara Dientsberger to catch the runner rounding second base too far for a double play.
It only took one more batter for big defensive play No. 2 to arrive when Manley went high to grab a line drive for the third out of the inning.
The next inning ended with a running catch by left fielder Cassie Best. And in the seventh inning right fielder Carly Frey made a diving catch for the second out.
“Our girls take pride in their defense,” Slavin said. “We have a lot of diving practices where I’ll send them a text and say, ‘You’d better bring your pants because we’re going to dive all practice long.’ We force them to take pride in it in practice which then carries over to game situations.”
This game situation was different from any other, though, since it was in the state tournament.
But the Wildkittens were steady from the start. Getting the lead early probably played a role in that.
“It kind of relaxed us a little bit,” Hollar said. “We knew we had to keep putting it on them but I think it kind of let us take a deep breath and just play our game.”
Reynolds (27-1), who didn’t allow a run until the sixth inning, said she felt some nerves early but got past that.
“The beginning of the game I was a little nervous. It’s a big stage to be on,” she said. “And I look up in the stands and I see my dad sitting right behind Julia. He gave us notes in our tournament bags that just said, ‘Relax, have fun. We’re proud of you.’ That kept running through my head the whole time and that’s what kept me calm and collected.”
She also got some advice from her coach, Slavin, who was Bath’s pitcher the last time it was in the state softball tournament in 2004.
“She told to me just relax and have fun. We made it to the final four. Just play like you know how to,” Reynolds said.
Tallmadge’s only run came in the bottom of the sixth inning on Joanna Catalano’s two-out double and a single by Tori Young.
Even though Tallmadge errors played a role in two of Bath’s three runs, the Blue Devils’ coach Ed Seeker said, “I don’t think we made mistakes. They put the ball in play. They forced some issues. We just couldn’t get some key hits when we needed to get some hits.
“They’re very strong at the top of the order. They have the left-handed leadoff hitter who puts the ball in play. She did a great job of driving the ball down into the ground and getting the bounces she needed. And then their (No. 3) hitter came up and hit the gap twice on us,” he said.
Bath will be going for its second softball state championship. It won the title in 2001 and was runner-up in 2000.