It’s been 20 years since an Elyria High softball team first played in a state Final Four.
The Pioneers were to take on the Westerville South Greyhounds, the eventual state runner-up, in a 1994 semifinal. Ken Fenik, who was coach Sue Cohagen’s assistant at the time, said he knew before the game started Elyria was in for a long afternoon.
The tournament was still being held in Ashland’s picturesque Brookside Park. Fenik and Gordy Cohagen, Sue’s dad and another of her assistants, were standing at the top of a stairway leading to the diamond.
“Gordy and I looked at each other and we just said, ‘Man, we’re gonna get a butt-whippin’,’”said Fenik now nearing the end of his 20th season as Pioneers coach. “‘We made it, but we’re not ready to compete here.’
“That’s so vivid in my mind because they came out in their fancy silky uniforms and back then we still wore the old-style uniforms, polyester pants and shirts.”
Forget the uniforms. Fenik’s premonition was on the money. The Pioneers were routed, 9-1.
“Jocelyn (Fada, an assistant to Fenik) was on that team,” Fenik said, “and she never lets us forget that we made her wear those uniforms.”
How times have changed.
Elyria didn’t make another state tournament for six years, until the Pioneers defeated Sylvania Southview 1-0 to win the 2000 Division I regional. The Pioneers lost to Boardman 2-1 in a state semifinal thriller, but the 2000 season marked the beginning of a remarkable Final Four run.
Since then, Elyria has won two state championships (2002 and ’09) and four straight regional crowns, eight in the last nine years. The Pioneers have 11 total regional trophies and have been state runners-up four times, including last season, and three years in a row (2006-08).
The 10th-ranked Pioneers (23-7) are scheduled to play in their 11th state tournament at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Akron’s Firestone Stadium. The opponent will be the No. 8 Grove City Greyhounds (25-6).
No matter how the Pioneers fare this time around, Fenik said, this season is already as memorable as the state championship years.
Having lost seven seniors at graduation last June, they were left with a roster made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores.
At one point, their record was 13-7, the most losses ever for a Fenik-coached team. At another point, they lost back-to-back Northeast Ohio Conference games. On May 9, they were beaten by second-ranked Brecksville, 7-1.
But they haven’t lost since and, coincidentally, their regional championship victory was over Brecksville, 4-0.
“We played a perfect game against Brecksville,” Fenik said. “I said that to beat them, we had to play a perfect game. That was it.”
It was as nearly perfect as it could be without actually being a perfect game.
Sophomore Elizabeth Ellis pitched her best game of the season, keeping Brecksville batters off-balance in recording the shutout. The defense was flawless and at one point turned a 1-6-3 double play, which is unusual in softball, especially in high school softball. And the Pioneers got two home runs from senior catcher Kaitlyn Laseke.
“That was a special one,” Fenik said. “This is a special team. I call it my ‘Wow’ team.”
It has to be special to rank with the state championship teams. In 2002, the Pioneers trailed Cincinnati Sycamore 1-0 until the sixth inning, when Amy Koutsopolous scored the tying run and, on the same play, freshman Alex Boros ran home with the eventual winner.
A memorable photo of that game shows pitcher Aubrey Oliver pulling Koutsopolous away from home plate to give Boros enough room to score.
“I remember 2006,” Fenik said. “Megan Bashak pitched us all the way to the championship game (against North Canton Hoover), then gave up a home run. I forget the girl’s name, but she single-handedly beat us a couple times (2006-’08).”
Reminded that it was McKenna Russ, whose two-run shot beat the Pioneers 2-0 in 2006 and who scored the winning run in Hoover’s 1-0, 10-inning heartbreaker in ’09, Fenik said, “I get chills every time I hear that name.”
In ’07, Hudson hit Bashak hard and she didn’t make it out of the first inning in a 4-0 loss, Fenik recalled. He said he approached then-sophomore Tess Sito and told her she would be going in to pitch.
“She said she didn’t want to,” he said of Sito, who finally acquiesced and held Hudson scoreless the rest of the way.
Two years later, Sito pitched and batted the Pioneers to a 10-1 rout of Hudson in the 2009 title game. But the big blow was a fourth-inning grand slam by Kristen Boros, Alex’s younger sister.
“That ’09 game was sweet after some of those girls had been there three times and lost,” Fenik said.
So what’s the secret of the Pioneers’ success?
“I’ve got players who buy in and they know it’s a process that takes a while to develop,” he said. “The kids and the parents are dedicated. They start early in Little League and travel ball and one of the biggest things is that Gordy, Jocelyn and myself represent continuity.
“This year, I couldn’t hit the ball because of the shoulder replacement, but we brought John Wallace on board and he’s a baseball guy,” he said. “So he hits to the outfield, Jocelyn hits to the infield and (Amy) Mazur coaches the JVs.”
Mazur was the starting second baseman on the 2002 state championship squad.
“I think the girls like the coaches and they know we all stick together,” Fenik said. “From the first day, I told the girls we have a tough schedule this year. But I said, ‘It’s not about the wins and losses. It’s about being ready in time for the tournaments.’”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Division I state softball semifinal
WHO: No. 10 Elyria Pioneers (23-7) vs. No. 8 Grove City Greyhounds (25-6)
WHEN: Thursday, 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Firestone Stadium, Akron
RADIO: WEOL 930-AM, WOBL 1320-AM
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PIONEERS STOCKPILE TROPHIES
STATE TITLES: 2 (2002, ’09)
FINAL FOUR APPEARANCES: 11 (1994, 2000, ’02, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14)
(tied for 5th all time; Tallmadge leads with 15 each; Keystone tied for third with 13)
STATE FINAL APPEARANCES: 6 (2-4)
RECENT RUN: Making fourth straight trip to Final Four and eighth in last nine years.
ELYRIA AT REGIONAL AND STATE
REGIONAL: def. Celina 5-4; Fremont Ross 6-4
STATE SEMIFINAL: lost to Westerville South 9-1
REGIONAL: def. Lexington 2-1; Sylvania Southview 1-0 (8 innings)
STATE SEMIFINAL: lost to Boardman 2-1
Regional: def. Holy Name 8-1; lost to Anthony Wayne 1-0
REGIONAL: def. Padua 2-1; Sylvania Southview 1-0
STATE SEMIFINAL: def. Hamilton 2-1
STATE FINAL: def. Sycamore 2-1
REGIONAL: def. Valley Forge 7-1; lost to Toledo St. Ursula 2-1
REGIONAL: def. Garfield Heights 10-2; Anthony Wayne 2-0
STATE SEMIFINAL: def. Hamilton 6-0
STATE FINAL: lost to Hoover 2-0
REGIONAL: def. Sandusky 1-0; Strongsville 5-4
STATE SEMIFINAL: def. Mason 2-1
STATE FINAL: lost to Hudson 4-0
REGIONAL: def. North Royalton 1-0; Holland Springfield 2-0
STATE SEMIFINAL: def. Mason 11-2
STATE FINAL: lost to Hoover 1-0 (10 innings)
REGIONAL: def. Brecksville 2-0; Oregon Clay 4-1
STATE SEMIFINAL: def. Hilliard Darby 2-0
STATE FINAL: def. Hudson 10-1
REGIONAL: def. Midview 2-0; lost to Holland Springfield 2-1
REGIONAL: def. Midview 6-5; Sylvania Southview 6-4
STATE SEMIFINAL: lost to Hoover 9-5
REGIONAL: def. Perrysburg 6-5; Notre Dame Academy 18-2
STATE SEMIFINAL: lost to Lebanon 3-1
REGIONAL: def. St. Joseph Academy 9-0; Oregon Clay 4-1
STATE SEMIFINAL: def. Mason 5-0
REGIONAL: def. Oregon Clay 8-5; Brecksville 4-0
STATE SEMIFINAL: vs. Grove City, Thursday