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Looking Back at the OHSAA’s Softball Championships

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Looking Back at the OHSAA's Softball Championships
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

The girls softball state tournament was first played in the late 1970’s, 1978 to be exact.  Through the year 2000 the participating schools were divided into three categories, Class A-AA-AAA from 1978-1989, and Division I-II-III from 1990 to 2000.  In 2001 a Division IV was added.

While the state tournament has always been for fast-pitch softball, over the years the girls around the state have played both fast-pitch and slow-pitch.  In fact, on occasion the same team has been known to play both a fast-pitch and a slow-pitch schedule during the same season.  However, the majority of the teams playing softball have historically played fast-pitch.  There could be any number of reasons for this; however, the main one is undoubtedly because that is the type of softball that is played at the college level.  If a high school girl wanted to play softball at the next level, and possibly earn a college scholarship as well, then she had play fast-pitch. 

This predominance of participation in fast-pitch over slow-pitch is also the main reason that the state tournament has always been in that form of the sport.  By OHSAA rule, a sport needs to be participated in by at least 150 schools to become eligible for its own state tournament.  In 1978, fast-pitch softball fulfilled that criteria and was granted its own tournament.  By 1991 more than three-quarters of the schools playing softball (612 out of 830) were playing the fast-pitch variety.

However, the proponents of a slow-pitch softball state tournament were not quite ready to throw in the towel.  In 1991, while the slow-pitch coaches association, known as the Committee for Slow-Pitch Softball, was lobbying the OHSAA for an official state tournament, they started their own unsanctioned tournament to give the girls on these teams something to shoot for.  What follows is a brief history of the slow-pitch softball state tournament, perhaps the least known of Ohio’s high school state championships.

For the slow-pitch state tournament the schools were divided into just two divisions, I and II.  Two regional preliminary tournaments, numbering up to two dozen teams from each division, were held to determine those teams that would go on to the state finals.  The Southwest Classic (southern regional) was held in Cincinnati, and the Northeast Ohio Slow-Pitch Softball Tournament (northern regional) was held in Cleveland.  The top four finishers in each double elimination regional tournament would then meet in the double elimination state tournament, which was usually held at the end of May in Mt. Vernon. 

The slow-pitch state tournament was held from 1991 to 1998.  In 1997 and 1998 it was called the World Series of Softball, with the teams from both divisions playing together for a single championship.  Showing that bigger is not always better, Division II teams won both of those combined championships.

With but one exception, the slow-pitch state tournaments were dominated by the Cleveland area teams.  Cincinnati Glen Este, which finished second to Trinity High School (Garfield Heights) in 1991, was the only southern school to capture a slow-pitch state title when the Trojans won the Division I championship the following year by defeating Trinity.  (Oddly enough, Trinity’s nickname is also the Trojans.)

In Division I the other champions were Eastlake North (1993, 1994) and Willoughby South (1995, 1996).  The Division II championships were dominated by two teams, West Geauga High School and Cleveland’s Villa Angela-St. Joseph.  The Wolverines of West Geauga played in six slow-pitch championships, winning the Division II title in 1991 and 1994.  The Lady Vikings of Villa Angela-St. Joseph were the only team to win three consecutive slow-pitch state championships, taking the Division II title in both 1995 and 1996, and winning the combined “World Series” in 1997.  They finished second in the 1998 World Series to overall champion Lake Catholic of Mentor.

While these tournaments and championships were technically unsanctioned, you would have had a hard time convincing the winners that they were not state champions.  As Harrison High School Athletic Director, Mike Schiering, put it in 1991, “A state tournament is a state tournament.  One team can still say it’s the state champion.”

In Ohio high school athletics we are used to having the teams from the bigger schools, with their larger student populations to choose from, dominate athletic competitions, especially when teams from the larger and smaller schools play against each other.  This is most likely true for every other state around the country as well.  However, at least in Ohio, the girls fast-pitch softball tournament is a stunning exception to this rule.  Virtually none of the large co-ed or all-girl schools that we traditionally associate with athletic success has ever won a softball state championship.  Canton McKinley, Massillon Washington, Cincinnati St. Ursula, Cincinnati Princeton, Regina (South Euclid),and Upper Arlington,  to name just a few, have never won a softball state championship – or even advanced to the championship game

Going one step further, teams representing the major cities of Ohio have also been pretty much shut out of the winner’s circle when it comes to producing fast-pitch softball champions.  Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton have never been able to claim a softball champion, while Toledo (St. Ursula Academy, 2004) and Columbus (Bishop Ready, 1995) can claim just one each.

So, who are Ohio’s “Diamond Darlings,” our “Queens of the Sandlots”?  The hands down winner, and home to 21 state softball championship teams is Akron.  If you include the adjoining city of Tallmadge, the Akron area total jumps to 28.  No other city or area of the state comes even close to this fantastic accomplishment.

Leading the way in Akron’s softball success is that city’s Springfield High School with its total of nine state championships, the most for any school in the state and tied for #6 all-time for softball state championships by a single school in the country.  The other Akron schools to win state titles are Archbishop Hoban - 6 (1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992), Manchester - 3 (1979,1990,2001), St. Vincent-St. Mary – 2 (1979,1984), Ellet – 1 (1996)

The Springfield Spartans were led to the top of the softball world by head coach Ray Fowler, who was the Spartans’ mentor from 1978-1999.  Softball was just a club sport at Springfield High School until 1978.  Fowler, then an assistant football coach, was asked to lead the girls in their initial varsity season that year, and he jumped at the opportunity to become a head coach for the first time.  That first season must have seemed somewhat magical for Fowler and his Spartans, as the team went 17-2 and won the state’s first Class AAA girls fast-pitch state tournament championship.

If may have seemed all too easy for Springfield to win a state title, but “reality” set in over the next nine years.  Although the Spartans never had a losing season, in fact their winning percentage was quite high, they were looking like some of those “one shot wonders” that win a state title in the first year of a tournament, but then never even make it back to the tourney, much less win it.  But Ray Fowler really got into softball, learned the sport inside and out, and passed along what he had learned to his girls. 

It all paid off in a big way beginning in 1988.  That year, led by ace pitcher and Summit County “Player of the Year” sophomore Carla Brookbank, the Spartans posted their first 30-win season, finishing 30-2 and capturing the Class AAA championship.  Brookbank was a perfect 26-0 on the mound, with three no-hitters, 13 shutouts and 207 strikeouts.  She also led the team with her bat, hitting .450 and knocking in 35 runs.  The next season it was more of the same as the Spartans, and Carla Brookbank, went 28-1 (the lone defeat by a 1-0 score) in winning a second consecutive Class AAA championship.  Brookbank was again named the Summit County “Player of the Year,” with a 0.19 ERA, .400 batting average and 27 RBI to go along with her outstanding won-lost record.

Carla Brookbank was positioned to lead her team to a record third consecutive state softball championship in 1990, but during the 1989-1990 basketball season she suffered a knee injury that wiped out her senior year of softball.  This may have slowed down coach Fowler’s team, but it did not stop them.  Posting a 25-3 mark, the Spartans won a record third consecutive Class AAA/Div. I state championship.

In 1991, the Spartans posted their second 30-win season against just two losses. Unfortunately, one of those defeats came in the Division I championship game, a 9-1 thrashing at the hands of Perrysburg High School.

That defeat in the ’91 title game was just a small (well, maybe not so small) bump in the road for the Spartans.  From 1992-1995 they would set a record for team and individual achievement that has yet to be equaled.  With an overall won-lost mark of 114-5, the Spartans of coach Ray Fowler won four consecutive Division I championships. (Since 1988 they had played in eight consecutive Div. I title games, winning seven of them.)  Leading the team all four of those seasons was one of the state’s greatest high school softball pitchers, Alanna Barker.

In her four years with the Spartans, Alanna Barker set a state record with 93 victories, against just three defeats.  In each of her four seasons she was the winning pitcher in both the Division I semi-final and championship game, allowing just five earned runs in 57 innings in those games, two of those victories being no-hitters.

During her senior season, Alanna was simply brilliant as she pursued the state record for most career victories.  Needing 28 wins to tie the old mark of 90, she was the starting pitcher in all 32 of her team’s games.  She won 31 of the 32 to set a new record (since broken by Molly Binz of Kenton Ridge High School with 108, 1999-2002), but even the game that she lost was spectacular.  In that game, a 1-0 loss to Marlngton High School, Alanna pitched a no-hitter, but lost the game on an error and a passed ball.

The Springfield Spartans advanced to the tournament for the ninth consecutive year in 1996, but lost in the semi-finals.  That would prove to be Ray Fowler’s last chance for a state championship, as he retired from coaching after the 1999 season.  His record in 21 years as the Springfield softball coach (there were no spring sports at Springfield High School in 1986 due to financial concerns) is eight Division I state  championships, a brilliant 472-76 won-lost mark, and a winning percentage of .861.  Fowler’s victory total places him among the top 30 coaches in the country, and his winning percentage is the fourth best all-time in the nation for coaches with at least 325 victories.

As we have seen with Alanna Barker and Carla Brookbank, one good pitcher, backed by teammates that can play solid defense and score a few runs, can take a team a long way.  Another stunning example of this is Jamie Wonderly of Gibsonburg High School.  From 2001 to 2003, Ms. Wonderly very nearly duplicated Alanna Barker’s incredible playoff performance.  In those three seasons, Jamie won all three Division III semi-final and final games to give her team three consecutive state championships.  In those games Jamie pitched five shutouts and allowed just one earned run. 

In 2004, even without Jamie Wonderly, the Golden Bears very nearly tied Springfield’s record of four consecutive state championships.  With the score deadlocked at 1-1 in the top of the seventh of the title game, Crestline High School scored the go ahead run on a double, a sacrifice bunt and an error.  Gibsonburg failed to score in the bottom of the inning and saw its championship string end at three in a row.

While the game of slow-pitch softball is dominated by offense and hitting, the name of the game in fast-pitch, as we have seen, is usually pitching.  Keystone High School in LaGrange (Lorain County) has the winningest high school softball team in the state (628-117, .843), and a great percentage of those wins are due to its pitchers, many of whom were developed by former head coach Dave Leffew.  Leffew coached the Wildcats to 428 victories from 1980-1999 (and a national eighth best winning percentage of .844), and the top notch pitchers that he developed are a major reason for his team’s success.  Seven of his hurlers were named to the all-state team, four of them to the first team, including his daughter, Amie, in 1999. 

Even though Leffew moved on to the college ranks after the ’99 season, there has been no drop off in the quality of the Wildcats’ pitching staff.  If anything, to the great dismay of Keystone’s opponents, it may have gotten even better.  Since 2000, three other Wildcats’ hurlers have been named to the All-Ohio first team.  One of them, Brittany Robinson, earned the honor twice (2002,2003).  Last year, Kristie Malinkey did Brittany one better as she earned her third consecutive first team All-Ohio placing.  In the 2006 Division II state championship game, Kristie threw a perfect game.  It was the seventh of her career (part of her 15 no-hitters), but it was the first time that any girl had ever pitched a perfect game in a state championship final.

Fast-pitch softball may be up to 80% pitching according to those who claim to know, but a team still has to have something of an offense in order to score the runs that win games.  Some of Ohio’s teams and players have managed to make a name for themselves on the national level from what they have been able to do on the offensive side of the game.  For instance, the team from Shelby High School scored 433 runs in 1979, the eighth highest seasonal total in the country.  Another eighth place national ranking for runs scored goes to the team from Defiance High School, which scored 57 runs in a game against Liberty Center in 1979.  Also in 1979, Class A state semi-finalist New Madison Tri-City High School averaged 17.6 runs per game, the third highest average in the country.  On May 27, 2001, West Chester Lakota scored 30 runs in one inning in a game against Dayton Belmont, the third highest single inning run production ever.

While Akron may be the home of the most softball championship teams in Ohio, it is also the home of some of the state’s all-time best hitters.  Specifically, we are talking about that city’s Manchester High School.  In a career that spanned the years1989 to 1992, Manchester’s Julie Swain collected 327 hits, at the time the highest total in the country, and still good for #2 on the national all-time list.  Her single season total of 103 hits (1991) is also second best in the country.  Right behind Julie in third place on the career hits list is her teammate Jenny Bennett, who from 1988-1991 collected 313 safeties.  Another of Julie’s teammates, Shawna Brown, rapped out 101 hits in 1991, also good for #3 on the all-time list, while another Manchester player, Susan Buckley, collected 100 hits in 1986 for fourth place on the all-time chart.

Jessica Hibbard of Fairport Harbor High School made her hits count for something.  In a single game in 1998 she collected seven RBI’s in a single game, as did Tiff Stevens of Sheridan High School in Thornville in 1998.  Both are ranked #3 on the all-time list.  Ms. Hibbard, however, was not a “one game wonder.”  For her career, 1997-2000, Jessica drove in 207 runs, the fifth highest RBI total in the land.

Ohio’s girls can not only collect the hits and RBI’s, and they can also hit for average.  Marty Imhoff of Shelby High School holds a career batting average of .582, #10 in the country, while Maria Benza of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy hit .727 in 2002, the fourth highest single season average ever.

Finally, Jen Snyder of Crestview High School used her speed to steal 10 bases in a single game on May 5, 1997.  That remarkable achievement places her at #3 in the national record book.

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